Atherton will pursue private bonds to fund its new civic center project after a town consultant advised the City Council that public markets are proving volatile as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. Council members also gave the go-ahead to purchase additional license plate readers to install throughout town to deter crime during a virtual council meeting on Wednesday, May 6.
Town officials had always considered a public sale option for purchasing "certificates of participation" (COPs) to fund the long-awaited $31.6 million civic center revamp, slated for completion in 2021, until COVID-19 hit, said Wing-See Fox, a managing director for town consultant UrbanFutures at the meeting. (Without an influx of cash, the general fund balance is projected to be at negative $1.9 million by October.)
The council gave UrbanFutures permission to authorize a term sheet with Capital One to use COPs to take out between $7 million and $9 million over 10 years at a 2.2% interest rate during the meeting. Fox said the term sheet creates a mutual understanding that the town will move forward with Capital One. Just three of 20 banks the town's consultant contacted about COPs responded because the banks are busy with an influx of loan requests as a result of COVID-19, Fox said.
"Starting in mid-March, in the municipal market, no bonds were getting sold; at that point we decided to seriously pursue and consider a private placement option," Fox said. Private placement financing comes through a bank, while a public sale offers bonds to the general public, according to a report prepared by staff for the meeting.
Bob Polito, a member of the town's Audit and Finance Committee, told the council that private placement makes the most sense for the town right now.
"If we were to postpone this, we might go out to 20 banks (later) and get nobody interested," he said. "With a public sale you're taking some risk and you don't really know what you're going to get. It's a no-brainer to take what's at hand."
Vice Mayor Elizabeth Lewis said the private financing route makes a lot of sense given "all the uncertainties in the public market and the world."
The civic center project includes police and administration facilities, building and planning offices, and a library. Construction, which began in April 2019, was on hold for weeks during San Mateo County's shelter-in-place order, but modifications to the order allowed for it to resume.
On May 20, the council will vote to officially authorize issuing the COPs to Capital One, Fox said.
License plate readers
During the meeting, the council also approved buying 16 Flock Safety automated license plate readers, known as ALPRs, for a cost of $2,000 each, totaling $32,000 per year starting in the 2020-21 fiscal year, which begins July 1. Four will be installed on Middlefield Road; four on Alameda de Las Pulgas; two on Valparaiso Avenue; one on Marsh Road; two on Atherton Avenue; two on Selby Lane; and one at Ringwood Avenue and Bay Road, according to a report prepared by staff for the meeting.
The council also approved purchasing eight signs, costing $1,200 total, that inform people there are license plate readers installed. They will be placed at, or near, the main entrances to town.
"I think it gives us eyes where we want them," said Mayor Rick DeGolia. "It also gives us a significant number of notices that will act as a real deterrent. … I want to make sure we don't spend too much time on too many cameras; I'm not sure how it will impact officers' time in monitoring (them)."
Police first proposed the idea to install cameras in town in response to a rash of 20 residential burglaries over a four-month period between November 2018 and February 2019.
Town police tested two Flock automated license plate readers in Holbrook-Palmer Park earlier this year. (ALPRs are mounted on police cars or on fixtures such as road signs and bridges. There were already public safety cameras at Holbrook-Palmer Park, and new police vehicles are equipped with ALPR cameras as part of their existing dashboard cameras.)
The cameras in the park have proven to be a "valuable investigative tool," the staff report states.
"Staff believes that Flock ALPR cameras placed at strategic locations around Town will add a significant investigative option that will help solve/deter crime in Atherton's neighborhoods," staff said. "Placing ALPR cameras along the Atherton borders will provide law enforcement investigators with a pointer system that can help to identify vehicles associated with suspects, witnesses, or victims, and to develop exculpatory information that assists them with focusing their investigative resources. The data also allows law enforcement to connect serial criminal activities that may have occurred in disconnected law enforcement jurisdictions."
Council member Mike Lempres said there is utility to the cameras, but stressed that he wants to make sure people's privacy is protected.
"I worry a lot about the civil liberties side of this," he said. "You put these up and people's reasonable expectation of privacy goes down." An audit of the cameras' usage is important, he said.
Police Chief Steven McCulley said there will be an independent audit done once a year, but he doesn't know which entity will conduct this audit yet.
Lewis also noted that she is a "little nervous" the town will be the first entity in the county to work with Flock. Flock is an Atlanta-based company that offers security systems for neighborhoods to help police solve crimes.
"I will cross my fingers they (Flock) do have their tech up and running and in good shape," she said.
McCulley noted that license plate readers mounted to police cars in town have proven to be less effective, pulling few valid hits on plates they read.
In addition to the 16 ALPR cameras located along the Atherton borders, staff members believe that more cameras in and around backstreets will further increase the chances of identifying a vehicle used in the commission of a crime.
Staff is seeking to work with residents or neighborhood groups who might be interested in funding additional camera installations. Lindenwood and Lloyden Park neighborhood residents have expressed interest in this proposed collaborative, staff said.
Timing for installing the cameras is still up in the air, according to City Manager George Rodericks.
"We don't have a good idea yet on when they would be installed since install(ation) depends on a number of factors (power, solar, location permission, visibility, view, etc.)," Rodericks said in an email. "It is anticipated that they would all be installed by the end of the calendar year."
After about a year, staff will reassess and determine if additional cameras are needed, the staff report states.
The full meeting can be viewed here.