By Randy Kugler
The mood of the audience attending the July 12 Pine Grove Community Meeting to discuss the new City Hall should cause the Mayor and Council some concern. Based on the Mayor’s representation at the previous June 28 meeting which he concluded by questioning whether citizens were willing to spend 6-7 million dollars on such a large facility, he promised to work to convince City staff that the building square footage needed to be reduced and that he would get the price down so that a more affordable Bond could be presented to the taxpayers. None of that happened and the audience sat through another design review by the architect that basically repeated what was originally presented.
The reality is that the excitement of the pretty picture phase of this project is over, and the Mayor and Council have no definitive answers on how they plan to seek to finance this 11,776 sq. ft. project. We did learn that this is the design that the Council has determined to be in your best interests, there will be no other options considered, that this is the result of two years of very trying Council work involving many public meetings that citizens should have been attending if they wanted to know what was going on and once they figure out how they plan to pay for it, the Council will let you know.
During the year long Public Facility Advisory Committee work on this project, ex City Councilor Scott Galvin worked directly with the Committee and suggested several times that we reach out to citizens and gather some information as to how much they were willing to spend on this facility. I supported this idea as it could help frame the financial planning portion of the Committee’s recommendation to the City Council. The City Council was not interested in getting this feedback from citizens.
In response to a citizen question on how the City was paying off the loan on the Underhill property, the Mayor said that short term rental revenue was paying for the property purchase. This is simply untrue. STR revenues are collected by the General Fund and are used to pay for a wide variety of General Fund activities and are not earmarked for any particular expenditure. Claiming that short term renters are paying for the Underhill property is yet another example of the misrepresentation of facts that have plagued this project and have brought us to this present point of uncertainty, confusion and trust in believing what City officials tell us.
The main design feature that is driving the cost and size of the building is the 3,636 sq. ft. Council Chamber/Meeting space. This space alone is about 20% larger than the entire present City Hall and will cost between $1.8 and $2.2 million dollars. Citizens listened to passionate arguments by Council members that this space would serve as a shelter location for citizens in the event of a disaster. We were further told that Manzanita as the community leader of north county, must continue to take the lead in advocating for and providing public services to all north county residents including our seasonal visitors. What was not said but must be concluded is that such community leadership comes with a price tag and that price will be exclusively paid by Manzanita taxpayers in this case.
Again, using the City’s own consultant’s costs supplemented with actual local contractor estimates, a remodel option for the school creating 9,758 sq. ft. of total space for approximately $2.5 million dollars was presented as an option to the City Council. The existing school would be expanded with identified structural deficiencies totally rebuilt to a Class 3 seismic structure rating with the Quonset hut serving as the emergency hub and emergency shelter/storage space. The City Council determined that citizens would not be allowed to even consider this as an option as it might prove to be preferable to their new build choices. During the meeting the architect volunteered that in his opinion a remodel would cost just as much as building new. After the meeting, a citizen asked the architect if he had read the City’s WRK engineering report on the cost to recondition the school. He replied that he had not read the report. This puts his opinion at odds with the structural engineer who produced the report thus calling into question Mr. Steele’s conclusion that this particular remodel would be as expensive as the proposed design being presented.
It is obvious why the City did not want to allow citizens to see a remodel option face off in a direct comparison to their preferred new build choice. Imagine Mr. Steele describing both options side by side in the pretty picture phase just concluded. Then imagine the Mayor and Council presenting the costs for both projects but no longer being able to rely on describing the school in the negative terms it has done up to this point. While giving citizens that opportunity has been the only request that I and Committee member Lee Hillenbrand made when we submitted two remodel options, the City knew it could not risk allowing that to happen.
When you attended the October 2017 community meeting at the Pine Grove to discuss ideas as to how to build a new City Hall, Police Station and Emergency Hub, was this the final product that you expected the City Council would be presenting to you? That with literally weeks before the County deadline to submit paperwork for a Bond measure, you still have no idea on an approximate final project cost or how the City will be financing the most expensive public improvement in Manzanita’s history. And finally, a growing theme appears to be Manzanita’s responsibility to solely fund and become a regional disaster operation and shelter provider.
The discussion on how to create an effective and equitable means for paying for emergency preparedness for north county is beyond the scope of this response. I would however suggest that placing that responsibility on Manzanita taxpayers and attempting to implement that goal through the non existent financing strategy of this project is far beyond the scope of what citizens were led to believe when the City purchased the Underhill property.