Despite a pandemic-ravaged budget, the Menlo Park City Council is exploring ways to fund a new pool, plus safety and sustainability additions to the new community center that Facebook has proposed to rebuild to replace the Onetta Harris Community Center, senior center and youth center in Belle Haven.
Facebook has offered to build a two-story community campus building with new youth facilities, a senior center, health and fitness facilities, a library area, locker rooms, improved parking and a breezeway to improve access to Kelly Park. The building is being designed by architecture firm Hart Howerton. According to city staff, the value of Facebook's offer is about $40 million.
In recent meetings, the council has expressed interest in moving forward with plans for additional improvements for the new community center, which add millions of dollars in costs the city will be required to pay.
The biggest of these items is a new pool, set to cost $7.4 million, according to staff.
Other items the council says it wants to fund are upgrades to make the new structure more sustainable and safe – for instance, making it seismically sound to function as a Red Cross evacuation center; capable of providing backup power; and possessing solar carports, a recycled water connection and underground utilities, among other items.
Some items, like the solar carports and renewable energy microgrid, could be paid for with a power purchase agreement using tax credits.
Assuming those items could pay for themselves through a power purchase agreement, the council was tasked with coming up with about $9.8 million in additional funds to pay for the new pool and the other items, according to staff.
The council agreed Nov. 10 to plan on raising about $1 million through grants and donations. Elyse Stein, president of the Menlo Park Library Foundation, said that the foundation had already done some research to gauge the community's interest in supporting a fundraising campaign.
Although city staff recommended the council also use $2 million of its unassigned general fund balance toward this project, council members did not favor doing so – the city currently has a tight budget due to COVID-19 related economic impacts. Instead, they favored drawing on voter-approved general obligation bonds from the city's Measure T.
The measure, approved in 2001, permits the city to issue a series of bonds to raise up to $38 million to improve recreational facilities. About $24 million has already been spent, and about $14 million remains.
"We have such an uncertain economic situation with the pandemic ... and Measure T funds are specifically for this purpose," said Councilwoman Betsy Nash. "I would propose not to dip into the general fund."
While the council discussed the possibility of issuing bonds for all of the remaining $14 million to make high-priority improvements to parks identified in a recently completed parks master plan, ultimately it agreed to cap its current discussion at the amount needed for the new community center – about $8.8 million, assuming that grants and donations can raise about $1 million.
"Measure T raises people's taxes," said Councilwoman Catherine Carlton. "Let's keep them at the lowest rate possible, especially if we can get grants, donations, or other funding."
The rate for residential and commercial property owners would be set at a specific amount – likely an increase of somewhere between $20 and $30 – per $1 million of the property's assessed value, according to Dan Jacobson, assistant administrative services director.
These bonds wouldn't take effect until December 2022, according to staff.
Offering services during construction
The council approved a plan for how the city would continue to provide the many services that, pre-pandemic, were offered on-site while the new building is under construction.
Senior services and recreation classes would be temporarily moved or accommodated at the Arrillaga Family Recreation Center and Burgess Park campuses, and the city would increase transportation between the Belle Haven neighborhood and these facilities.
For recreation classes, the city plans to set up a pilot program to modify the program fee structure to encourage residents to participate in classes regardless of their ability to pay. For the after-school program, the city would seek to set up portable classrooms for students at the far end of the Kelly Park parking lot. According to staff, the city has set aside about $1 million for providing these interim services.