You remember how, back in June 2012, Alamedans voted to increase their taxes in order to fund construction of, among other edifices, a new Emergency Operations Center and Fire Station No. 3?
Well, if you don’t, you’re excused because Measure C, the staff-drafted initiative that would have raised the sales tax rate by a half cent to pay for the new structures, actually lost at the polls.
But if you’re one of the 8,426 Alamedans who voted against Measure C, you may be surprised to learn that, despite its defeat, the Russo/Gilmore administration has proceeded apace with plans to build both a new EOC and a new fire station. The EOC is nearing the construction phase; money has been set aside to design Fire Station No. 3, and the City has hired a politically well-connected lobbyist to shake construction funds for the fire station out of the State Legislature.
Alamedans can see tangible evidence of these developments this Monday when staff presents the Planning Board with a design review application for construction of a more expensive, and more elaborate, EOC than the one contemplated by the failed Measure C. The new EOC will cost around $2.8 million and is “tentatively” scheduled for completion by the end of the year – i.e., a month or so after the November 2014 election. Fire station no. 3, estimated to cost $6.5-to-$7 million at last report, is “scheduled to begin construction” in 2015.
How did this come to pass? Let the Merry-Go-Round tell you the story of how the City’s politicians disproved the Rolling Stones and showed that, in fact, you can always get what you want – even if it isn’t what the voters may think they need.
Back in March 2012, City Manager John Russo sprang on Council and the public a proposal for a one-half-cent sales tax increase that he “strongly and urgently” recommended was needed to remedy a “dangerous inadequa[cy]” in the City’s “aging facilities and public safety infrastructure.” Among other things, the proposal called for building both a new EOC and a new Fire Station no. 3 to replace “existing outdated seismically unsafe facilities.”
The staff report outlining the plan stressed the utilitarian features to be found in a “modern” EOC: “sufficient space for staff to work effectively together, as well as to break into smaller workgroups in separate areas”; a “quiet setting, with minimal interruptions,” and communications and computer systems “that match modern standards.” Missing was any estimate of the cost of constructing a new building offering these amenities. This omission led Councilman Doug deHaan to come up with his own list of cost estimates for the projects included in staff’s proposal. According to the Councilman, the new EOC would cost $1.4 million and the new fire station $4.2 million – a total of $5.6 million.
Councilman DeHaan put his list into the official record, and, at the next Council meeting, he sought to confirm that the minutes reflected his request to staff for a cost breakdown. Mr. Russo responded by launching into a jeremiad. Item-by-item, he went down Councilman’s deHaan’s list and denounced it as “dramatically misinformed.” In fact, Mr. Russo assured Council and the public, the new fire station and EOC together would cost $4.5 million, not $5.6 million.
Staff reiterated the $4.5 million cost figure in the Frequently Asked Questions it posted on the City Website. And the same figure appeared on the Website — paid for by the firefighters’ union – put up by Measure C advocates. Using identical language, the City Website and the campaign Website also ratcheted up the rhetoric: “We risk lives,” both sites proclaimed, “as long as we rely upon an unreliable EOC as a command center when natural disaster befalls our city.”
Alas, Measure C obtained barely 50% of the vote, well short of the two-thirds required to impose a new tax. And this despite contributions from organized labor totaling more than $60,000 — $33,657.93 from the firefighters’ union alone – to get the Measure passed. (Measure C opponents spent $2,640).
It’s not clear that voters turned down Measure C specifically because they thought the existing EOC and fire station did the job perfectly well. For all we know, the “No” voters didn’t like swimming pools or libraries, two of the other projects included in the grab bag of goodies in the initiative. But it is clear that that, as far as the Russo/Gilmore administration was concerned, the defeat of Measure C wasn’t going to stop them from pursuing their goal. As Assistant City Manager Alex Nguyen told The Alamedan, “Just because Measure C failed doesn’t mean we don’t need this.”
To the City Manager and the Mayor, there was no necessity after the defeat of Measure C to make the case to the public for a new EOC and fire station. Instead, they decided to, well, Just do it.
The first step toward that end was a clever one. Back in February 2012, a few weeks before Mr. Russo unveiled his sales tax idea, staff issued a Request for Proposals for a “feasibility study” for the new EOC and fire station. The RFP scheduled approval by Council of a contract with the successful bidder on June 5. But no contract was presented to Council on June 5 – which turned out to be Election Day – or on any other date. Instead, on July 1, staff entered into a contract on behalf of the City with Brown Reynolds Watford Architects (“BRW”) to perform the “feasibility study.”
The contract amount was $74,700 – i.e., $300 less than the amount that under the Municipal Code would have required a vote by Council after a noticed public hearing. It may have been just a coincidence, but by keeping the contract amount below $75,000 staff was able to spare the politicians the embarrassment of having to raise their hands publicly in favor of spending City funds on an EOC and fire station less than a month after the voters had refused to raise taxes to build them.
BRW got right to work and held three neighborhood meetings during the fall of 2012. After the last meeting, the chief architect for the project gave The Alamedan BRW’s cost estimate for the new EOC and fire station: $6.8 million. This, of course, was 50% higher than the amount that, six months earlier, Mr. Russo had insisted, and the City and pro-Measure C Websites had asserted, the new facilities would cost. The public record does not contain any evidence of an apology to Councilman deHaan, whose own estimate, publicly pilloried by Mr. Russo, actually turned out to be more than $1 million lower than the architect’s.
As BRW continued to analyze “feasibility,” staff tackled the problem of finding the money to replace the Measure C funds that were supposed to pay for getting the new facilities designed and built.
For the design money, staff looked to the City’s general and special-purpose funds. Originally inserted into the City’s capital improvement budget during the first year of the Russo/Gilmore administration, spending for preliminary work on a new fire station was retained in the budget after Measure C failed. Most recently, the capital improvement budget for FY 2013-14 included $600,000 for the “design, bidding and project management activities necessary to replace” the EOC and fire station. The money would come from the General Fund, the Facility Maintenance Fund, and the Community Development Fund. Neither staff nor Council brought up this particular item at any of the public meetings leading up to Council’s approval of the overall $28.341 million capital improvement budget.
Staff then turned to the harder task of finding the money to pay for building and equipping the new facility. Ultimately, the solution was for the City to emulate those homeowners who, during the housing bubble, re-financed their homes in order to get cash to spend on goods and services they decided they could not live without. Staff proposed that the City take advantage of lower interest rates and float a new bond issue large enough to pay off a series of outstanding bonds and leave money left over for building the EOC. This plan required the City to continue paying principal and interest for another five years past the original maturity date, but so what? In the short run, it would generate $3 million in cash for the EOC.
Staff drafted an agenda item embodying this proposal that was, as we have previously reported, distinguished by its opaqueness. Nevertheless, it sailed through Council without objection. Indeed, Councilman Stewart Chen, D.C., inquired about using the same technique to raise funds to pay for other worthy projects. Unfortunately, he was told, the well had run dry. (Which presumably is why Council later chose to hire ex-Senator Don Perata to waive his divining rod in Sacramento).
Having arranged for the construction funds, staff then returned to design for the new EOC. Presumably, by this time BRW had finished its “feasibility study,” although this document never made it into the public record. In any event, at the same meeting at which it reported the success of the re-financing, staff proposed that the City enter into a contract to pay BRW $291,000 to provide architectural and construction management services for the new facility.
Although the City Charter requires that public works contracts go to the lowest bidder, the EOC design work had never been put out to bid. No problem, staff said. The Charter requirement contained an exception allowing Council, by a supermajority vote, to award a no-bid contract where “great necessity or emergency requires immediate action.” Showing that he’d read the old Measure C literature, interim Public Works Director Bob Haun declared that this standard was satisfied because “it’s staff’s feeling that there is a great necessity to construct this functional EOC that will assuredly survive the strongest contemplated earthquake we can design it for.”
That was good enough for Council, which approved the no-bid contract unanimously – but not before Councilwoman Lena Tam interjected that the City wouldn’t have had to use capital improvement funds for the project if only the voters had seen fit to pass Measure C. Intoned Mr. Russo in response: “That’s right. I validate your statement.”
This Monday, staff will present the Planning Board with BRW’s handiwork. According to the staff report, the new EOC will consist of a two-story, 3,640-square foot building designed in the Prairie/Craftsman style — which the architects chose over “Mid-Century Modern” and “Traditional Brick Warehouse”– and featuring a tile roof with a 30-foot high peak. The site will be planted with “Bay Friendly landscaping on all sides,” including one red maple, three American elms, and – assuming the Historical Advisory Board approves – one coastal live oak and one pin oak. And, of course, plenty of room will be reserved for the new fire station.
And, oh yeah, since the building is, after all, supposed to be an “emergency operations” center, it will contain a “primary meeting space” area holding up to 50 people, a “Disaster Preparedness Office,” a “secondary communications and conference room,” an “independent communications/Information Technology equipment room,” and restrooms with showers. We have yet to hear how many additional firefighters former IAFF Local 689 president and current fire chief Mike D’Orazi thinks the City will need to hire to make optimal use of so much space.
So what’s the moral of this story? It’s possible to see it as an inspiring example of how creative public servants can see the big picture and protect the citizenry from its own short-sightedness. It’s also possible to see it as a distressing tale of how craven politicians can override the popular will and indulge their campaign contributors at the public’s expense. You be the judge.
Measure C: 2012-03-07 staff report re Measure C; 2012-03-20_Councilmember_deHaan_Submittal; 2012-04-03 CC minutes; Yes on C argument; 1-1-12 thru 5-19-12 report (Yes on C); 5-20-12 thru 6-30-12 report (Yes on C)