Atherton council considers taking on debt to build civic center | July 25, 2018 | Almanac | Almanac Online |

Almanac

News - July 25, 2018

Atherton council considers taking on debt to build civic center

by Barbara Wood

Faced with the reality of having to slash features from the plans for a new Atherton library and town offices to bring the cost in line with available funds, the City Council has begun talking about going into debt or spending reserves to pay for the long-planned project.

Paying for a new civic center to replace Atherton's aging and deteriorating town offices, police station and library has proved vexing for the town after an advisory vote in 2012 showed that voters wanted the design and construction of a new town center to be paid for primarily with donations.

Atherton Now, formed in 2015 to raise the money for the civic center, raised less than $7 million of its $25 million goal.

A vote in June 2017 approving spending money already in the town's coffers for the project seemed to have solved the problem, until early in June, when the only two companies to bid on the project came in far over projections. The low bid was 40 percent more than the estimate.

In late June, council members rejected the bids and said they would "value engineer" the project to make it less expensive. At a July 18 meeting, council members were presented a list of changes that could be made in plans for the new library to reduce its costs to $16 million from the $19 million that low-bidder C. Overaa & Co. had said it would cost.

Some suggestions for money-saving on the library included eliminating the decks around the building, eliminating energy-saving features not required by law, dropping the plans to renovate the existing historic town council chambers as public space for the library, and using less expensive building materials and furnishings.

But council member Rick DeGolia said the $16 million goal is actually lower than it needs to be. DeGolia said the tax funds that are available to pay the library costs are about $18.2 million and that future tax funds could be advanced to pay even more than that.

Specifics for cutting the plans for the administrative and police offices weren't presented at the meeting, but DeGolia said reducing the design of the building from the $29 million Overaa had said it would cost to $24 million would require a drastic reduction in square footage, to far below the space the town offices currently occupy.

"That's not the way to design a building," he said. "We need it and we should build it right."

DeGolia said the town could issue certificates of participation or use some of the $5.4 million from the reserve fund it has built up to raise additional money. "This is one of the times where we should use our extra reserve," he said.

"I think we should have the guts to say we're going to go out and raise the money we need," he said, either with a bond measure "or some other kind of fundraising."

Not all the council members agreed.

"I think we've got an obligation to live within our means," said Mike Lempres. He said the "strong message" from the community is "build the best building we can, but build it on a budget."

Council member Bill Widmer said he'd be willing to go into debt only if it were approved by the public.

"There are things in that building that I think can be taken out, can be changed," he said. "There are nice-to-haves, not have-to-haves in there."

But council member Elizabeth Lewis and Mayor Cary Wiest supported DeGolia, giving his view the backing of a council majority.

"I'm very disappointed in my council members for not having some vision at this point," Lewis said, noting that many other jurisdictions in the county have borrowed to build public buildings. "It's not that we have to live within our means," she said. "We will not be able to move forward with this project with that attitude," she said. "It will not happen."

Wiest said the current design is not "a matter of wants; it's a matter of needs."

"The (existing) buildings here are atrocious," he said, and construction is not going to get any more affordable.

The town's building and planning departments are in leaking portables that don't meet current building codes. The police department uses a garage as a gym and books suspects in a re-purposed shed. The council chambers were built in 1928 as the town hall, and the "new" administration and police offices were built in 1965.

In the end, the council asked that the whole matter be brought back to special meeting, scheduled for 8 a.m. Friday, Aug. 10, for more discussion.

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