If you were expecting the new Council to take a skeptical look at the plans approved by its predecessor for gratifying the fire department’s edifice complex, well, sorry to disappoint you.
As the clock ticked toward midnight Tuesday, Council took all of 20 minutes to discuss authorizing staff to solicit bids for construction of a new fire station no. 3. Four Council members then voted in favor of the motion; only Mayor Trish Spencer opposed it.
This vote may not seem terribly significant in itself, but consider what’s likely to happen next:
- Having already obtained the former Council’s approval to solicit construction bids for a new Emergency Operations Center (and having tried and failed to get an acceptable bid), staff will now combine the EOC and fire station projects into one and seek a bid for the entire package. (Public Works director Bob Haun confirmed to the Merry-Go-Round that this is indeed his intent).
- Staff will then present the winning package bid to Council, which will face the choice of going forward with both new buildings – or with neither. (As it is written, what staff has joined together, let no man put asunder).
- If Council takes the former route, the City will end up with a new fire station and a new EOC just three years after voters decided (by turning down a ballot measure) not to raise sales taxes to pay for them. What is more, the City will spend $13.15 million to construct two buildings that had been promoted (by the initiative’s proponents) as costing only $4.5 million.
- If Council takes the latter route, the lot at the corner of Grand and Buena Vista will revert to a truck storage area, emergency operations will continue to be managed out of the basement of police headquarters (as they have been since 1978), the firefighters who work out of fire station no. 3 will continue living in a house next door (as they have since 2001) – and the full fury of IAFF Local 689 and its Political Action Committee will descend upon the incumbents.
Some choice, dontcha think?
We have no reason to suspect that City staff intended to put Council into this bind when it made its recommendation Tuesday. Mr. Haun, who presented it, argued that putting the two projects into one bid package was simply more efficient, and he made a compelling case. One can only wonder why the same idea hadn’t occurred to him (or someone else on staff) any earlier. (Maybe it did, but the politicians chose not to wait till the new fire station was ready to bid, since they wanted work on the new EOC to be already underway before the November election).
Nor do we believe that the current Council members fully appreciated the consequences of their vote. Instead, the lack of discussion suggests that they probably regarded authorizing staff to seek construction bids for the new fire station as no more significant than approving a lease at Alameda Point.
But there was one group that was paying close attention to the fate of the agenda item: the Alameda firefighters’ union.
As the fire department’s “disaster preparedness coordinator,” Fire Captain Sharon Oliver is slated to be the only full-time employee on duty at the new EOC. She runs the “Community Emergency Response Team” program, which trains Alamedans how to provide emergency assistance to their families and neighbors in the event of a disaster. The day before the meeting, Captain Oliver sent out an email from her City email account “on behalf of Alameda CERT.”
Council was about to decide, Captain Oliver stated, “whether to allow the new [EOC] to be built as planned.” She went on to warn: “As you may know we thought that the plan to build a new EOC and a new fire station #3 had been approved and was going to bid, but somehow the mayor and some of the council members have stop[ped] the process.” Captain Oliver encouraged the email recipients to attend the Council meeting “and speak in favor of the plan.”
We can only assume that Captain Oliver’s suspicions about sabotage by the new Council were stoked by a source other than the staff report. She soon realized she had been misinformed and sent out a same-day correction.
Captain Oliver need not have worried. And after Council voted to authorize seeking construction bids for the new fire station, her colleague, IAFF Local 689 president Jeff DelBono, was quick to express the union’s gratitude.
“The replacement of Station 3 has the solid support of city staff and is very much needed for the safety of the community,” a press release issued by the firefighters’ union quoted Captain Del Bono as saying. “We are thankful to the four City Council members who voted in support of this.”
Then, ever the diplomat, Captain DelBono took a shot at Mayor Spencer for her “No” vote. “I cannot understand as to why she would be against this project,” Captain DelBono said. “Her action of voting against the replacement of Fire Station 3 demonstrates a lack of regard for the safety of our community.”
This made no more sense than accusing a Congressman who votes against agricultural subsidies of hating farmers, but we really can’t blame Captain Del Bono for feeling triumphant. Ever since former Mayor Marie Gilmore began her single four-year term, the firefighters’ union has been trying to get the City to build a new fire station and a new EOC. When the voters failed to give them what they wanted, the firefighters turned to the former Council, three of whose members owed their seats to support from IAFF Local 689 and its PAC. Since then, the only public official to speak out in opposition to the scheme has been Trish Spencer.
You read that right. (Remember it, because it’s probably the last time you’ll see these two names linked together).
Originally, the EOC was supposed to be an adjunct to the new fire station. But it morphed into a project in its own right, and the former Council awarded a $291,000 no-bid contract to an architectural firm to design an independent building. Ultimately, the architects came up with a two-story, 3,640 square foot structure that contained “primary” and “secondary” meeting rooms as well as an “independent communications/Information Technology equipment room.”
The architects presented their design to the Planning Board in January 2014, and Mr. Knox White was unimpressed. A “giant monolith sitting in a sea of asphalt,” he called it.
But Mr. Knox White’s criticism went beyond design issues. “I guess there is a part of me that wonders whether this is the right building in the right place,” he told his colleagues. “It’s not that we don’t need it. But it seems like we’re building this really large thing that’s not going to have that much use.”
He wasn’t speaking off the cuff. Before the meeting, he’d gathered data about EOCs in other Bay Area cities – Palo Alto had managed to build an EOC responsible for events on the Stanford campus for only $100,000 – and, at the meeting itself, he’d gotten then Fire Chief Mike D’Orazi to admit that “it’s impossible to predict” how often the new EOC would be used for non-emergency purposes. “Once a month?” Mr. Knox White pressed. “More than once a month” was as far as the Chief would go.
Noting that “two and a half million dollars [the then estimated cost for the EOC] is not an insubstantial amount of money to build a building,” Mr. Knox White suggested less expensive ways to provide a new home for emergency operations. If staff wanted to get the EOC out of the basement in police headquarters, why not erect a small building in the parking lot between headquarters and City Hall? (To an automobile antagonist like Mr. Knox White, this would have the collateral benefit of getting rid of parking spaces). Or why not retrofit fire station no. 1, where the fire department’s administrative offices already are located, to accommodate the emergency operations staff? And if the fire department needed space to conduct CERT training, how about using the meeting rooms at the library for that purpose?
Having attended one of the community meetings held to discuss the EOC, Mr. Knox White concluded, “I always imagined this small one-story building that was essentially a locked shed that was only going to be used in an emergency. It’s become this Carnegie-size, very large building sitting there.”
Surprisingly, although some of his colleagues echoed Mr. Knox White’s critique of the design, none of them joined him in questioning the need to build such a grandiose structure to serve as an EOC. After the architects tweaked the plans, every one of them voted a few weeks later to approve the project; Mr. Knox White ventured a quiet, “No.” (But, please, don’t brand him an incorrigible naysayer. That label is reserved for Ms. Spencer). And when the project got before the former Council, it sailed through.
(Then-Vice Mayor Marilyn Ezzy Ashcraft did ask Mr. Haun questions similar to those posed by Mr. Knox White to Chief D’Orazi about the non-emergency use of the EOC, and she got similar answers. In response to Ms. Ashcraft’s question, the minutes record, “the Public Works Director stated that the EOC may have one staffed position; the building will be occupied on a limited basis but quite often will be empty.” Nevertheless, on Tuesday Ms. Ashcraft pronounced herself satisfied that the new EOC “is going to serve a more public function.”)
We should add that Mr. Knox White did not raise any similar concerns about the need for a new fire station no. 3 when that project came before the Planning Board for design review. Indeed, no one has defended the status quo. But that doesn’t mean there weren’t issues worthy of discussion had City officials chosen to bring them up.
And, no, we’re not referring to the recommendation by the International City/County Management Association that fire station no. 3 be closed as superfluous. (Although we’re still waiting for City Manager John Russo to publish the analysis he promised on why ICMA was wrong). Instead, we’re talking about how the proposed new fire station doesn’t just “replace” the existing structure; it expands both equipment and personnel.
Originally, staff requested proposals for studying the feasibility of a new “single company house” with one fire engine staffed by a four-person company (the current arrangement). By the time the study was finished, the project had grown to encompass a new building that would house both a fire truck and a fire engine and provide living quarters for eight rather than four firefighters. And that’s what we’re going to get.
According to the staff report submitted to the Planning Board, the new fire station no. 3 will consist of a 9,252 square-foot building “designed to accommodate” not just an engine company but also a truck company and an ambulance. The new station will contain two apparatus bays, two outdoor “vehicle service areas,” an office, and living quarters for both companies. It will be “staffed by eight full-time firefighters at all times.”
The politicians may not be curious about why staffing for the new fire station has doubled or how the City intends to pay the wages and benefits of the additional firefighters. But we are.
For her part, Ms. Spencer’s concerns focused on finances. As she had during the campaign, the Mayor cited the staff projections that the General Fund would run out of money in five years. She also brought up the millions of dollars the City owes in unfunded liabilities for pensions and retiree health benefits. Was this the right time, she wanted to know, to take on additional debt, paid for out of the General Fund, to build a new fire station and a new EOC?
Her point was well-taken. Let’s run the numbers:
- When the former Council put the sales tax increase initiative on the ballot three years ago, the pro-Measure C campaign – to which the firefighters’ union contributed $33,657.93 – published an estimate attributed to City staff that the new fire station and the new EOC together would cost $4.5 million.
- After the initiative failed, staff broke the project into two parts, and the construction cost for the EOC alone eventually was estimated to be $3 million. The former Council approved paying this cost by re-financing municipal bonds. According to Assistant City Manager Liz Warmerdam, annual debt service on the newly issued bonds – to be paid from the General Fund – is $787,000 from 2014 through 2029 and then $395,000 in 2030. Based on the allocation provided to us by Ms. Warmerdam – the bond issue also paid off an earlier debt – this financing method results in a total cost of $5.05 million to build the new EOC.
- The construction cost for the new fire station no. 3 is now estimated to be $5 million. (The building was designed by the same architects who did the EOC; this time, the fee was $431,200). Staff proposed, and the former Council approved, paying this cost by using “one-time” funds totaling $1,191,000; “borrowing” $809,000 from the City’s “equipment replacement fund,” and taking out a $3 million loan from the state Infrastructure and Economic Development Bank. When debt service is included, the total cost of building the new fire station comes to $8.1 million. Annual debt service – also to be paid from the General Fund – is projected at around $300,000.
Just as Mr. Knox White’s colleagues had ignored his stated concerns about the need for an expensive EOC, none of Ms. Spencer’s colleagues joined her Tuesday in expressing any anxiety about the multi-million dollar costs of the new fire station and the new EOC.
And budget hawks, take note: This isn’t something Council is going to be able to “fix” at budget time. What would they do: Refuse to appropriate funds to pay the muni bondholders or the bank? It ain’t gonna happen. No, they’ll still be stuck in the box their vote Tuesday put them in. And then all that will be left is to decide whether they prefer ribbon cutting – or nut cutting.
Small wonder Captain DelBono is gloating.
EOC: 2013-07-23 staff report re COPs refinancing; 2013-10-15 staff report re architect for EOC; 2014-01-27 staff report to PB re EOC; 2014-01-27 PB minutes; 2014-03-24 staff report re EOC design; 2014-03-24 PB minutes; 2014-09-02 staff report re EOC construction contract
Fire station no. 3: 2014-03-18 staff report re financing FS 3; 2014-06-03 staff report re architect for FS3; 2014-07-29 staff report re FS3 financing; 2014-10-27 staff report to PB re FS3 design review; 2015-03-02 staff report re FS-3 bids
“Citizens for Preserving Alameda” Website: Yes on C argument
IAFF Local 689 press release: 2015-03-03 IAFF Local 689 press release