Here we go again.
Back in February 2012, the City issued requests for proposals to study the feasibility of building a new fire station, which would also serve as a citywide emergency operations center, to replace the existing Fire Station No. 3. A few months later, the City awarded a contract for $74,000 to an architectural firm to do the analysis.
The consultants came back with a plan for a new fire station and a separate EOC. The total estimated construction cost for both buildings was $6.58 million.
Five years later, the City held a gala opening ceremony for a new 9,000-square-foot Fire Station No. 3 and a new stand-alone 3,640-square-foot Emergency Operations Center at the corner of Grand and Buena Vista. All of the Council members attended, and Mayor Trish Spencer gave a ribbon-cutting speech. “Why did we do this? It was very, very obvious we needed a new one,” Ms. Spencer declared.
As of the time the Mayor cut the ribbon, the City had spent $10.9 million to design, construct, and equip the new fire station and EOC (including $217,000 to move firefighters and their equipment from the former Fire Station No. 3 into the new one). In addition, going forward it would be obligated to pay, from the General Fund, annual debt service that began at $956,697.91 in 2014 and continued (in lesser amounts) through 2030 on “certificates of participation” that had been issued, in part, to fund construction of the EOC. It also would be obligated to pay annual debt service totaling about $300,000 per year for 20 years on two loans taken out to fund construction of the new fire station. When the debt service is factored in, the project will end up costing the City more than $14 million.
And the job wasn’t finished after Ms. Spencer cut the ribbon. A state-of-the-art EOC, of course, requires state-of-the-art software. So in April 2018, a few months after the opening, Council awarded a 10-year contract, with two five-year options to renew, for $32,000 per year to a software company to supply a “web-based subscription software product” for the EOC.
Now, the process appears to be starting all over again.
At the meetings that led to the adoption of the two-year budget for fiscal years 2019-20 and 2020-21, Fire Chief Edmond Rodriguez requested that Council appropriate $78,000 from the General Fund in FY 2019-20 to “evaluate [the] feasibility of re-opening FS5.” He was referring to an existing building located at Alameda Point that the fire department had used as a fire station – Fire Station No. 5 – until 2009 and as a “training center” and “recruiting academy” thereafter.
During the May 15 Council meeting, the Chief made it clear that he was asking for funds to study fixing up the existing building so that it could be used as a fire station, not constructing a new one. According to him, rehabilitation was all the “Alameda Point plan” called for. (We’re not quite sure what “plan” Chief Rodriguez was referring to; the Master Infrastructure Plan for the Point contains a $6 million line item for a “fire station,” but it doesn’t describe the work to be done for this sum.)
Vice Mayor John Knox White then went the Chief one better – or maybe two.
The funds for the feasibility study didn’t need to come from the General Fund, Mr. Knox White opined; instead, the City should take the money out of the separate Base Reuse Special Revenue Fund, where revenues from leases and proceeds from sales of City-owned property at the Point are deposited. (The Base Reuse Special Revenue fund is a restricted account whose expenditures are supposed to be limited to paying costs related to the redevelopment of the former Naval Air Station.)
More importantly, Mr. Knox White declared that the study should evaluate not just the cost of rehabilitating the existing building but also the feasibility of building a brand-new fire station. “I want to make sure that, however we’re going to move forward with fire station 5, which is clearly needed with all of the growth that we have at some point,” he said, “this feasibility study is not just looking at one option and kind of locking us into a path, if that makes sense.”
In response, Chief Rodriguez reiterated his understanding that the “Alameda Point plan” contemplated only rehabilitation rather than new construction. After the meeting, however, City Manager Eric Levitt accommodated Mr. Knox White by adding another $20,000 to the FY 2019-20 budget “to expand the scope of the [feasibility] study to include options for re-location.”
At Tuesday’s meeting, Council can take the next step down the path by approving Chief Rodriguez’s request for $24,780 to pay for an analysis of the cost of building a completely new fire station. (The same architectural firm that is conducting the “rehabilitation” study will do the work.) According to the staff report, the new building would be constructed on a three-acre site that would “include a fire training center, a fire station for eight to nine on-duty personnel including an engine, truck, ambulance, and storage of additional fire apparatus and equipment.”
Somewhere, Fire Division Chief/Deputy Chief Jeff DelBono – or whoever is calling the shots at the Alameda firefighters’ union these days – undoubtedly broke into a big grin upon reading that sentence in the staff report. If the new fire station were large enough to provide quarters for “eight to nine on-duty personnel,” that’s 24 more union firefighters – three shifts of eight firefighters per shift – the City will need to hire. And the “training center” surely will require additional sworn personnel as well.
It is not, of course, inevitable that a $24,800 feasibility study will end up resulting in a $14 million fire station or burdening the City with decades worth of additional debt. But, as someone (was it Bernie Sanders or Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez?) once said, a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. And it wasn’t particularly reassuring to hear Mayor Marilyn Ezzy Ashcraft’s response to Mr. Knox White’s remarks at the May 15 Council meeting: In addition to expanding the scope of the feasibility study, she said, staff should begin “looking at various sources of funding to build a new fire station,” such as an infrastructure bond.
Ironically enough, the one Council member upon whom Alamedans might rely to rein in any especially grandiose plans is . . . Mr. Knox White himself. As a Planning Board member, he famously described the design proposed for the EOC as depicting “this giant monolith sitting in a sea of asphalt,” adding, “I guess there is a part of me that wonders whether this is the right building in the right place. It’s not that that we don’t need it, but it seems like we’re building this really large thing that’s not gonna have that much use.”
And at the May 15 budget meeting, Mr. Knox White suggested that cost-consciousness was behind his suggestion for studying the “option” of building a brand-new fire station. “The Emergency Operations Center that we just opened – I believe it was priced at $3-to-5 million – . . . and we ended up spending $14 million,” he pointed out. What he wanted to avoid, Mr. Knox White went on, was being sucked in by a “sales pitch” that promised, “Hey, this is free land, we should just build this, it’s going to cost this much money, it’s going to be fantastic” only to find out “when we got in there and took two shovels, there was already this contamination.”
This time at least, Mr. Knox White wasn’t exaggerating. In May 2015, Council approved a $7,690,608 construction contract for the new fire station and EOC. Thereafter, staff came back to Council three times to ask for more money:
- $305,698 in September 2015 for “containment, off-haul, and disposal” of hazardous soil at the site. According to the staff report, the presence of lead had not been detected during testing done three years earlier. Apparently, no one had thought of re-testing before the construction work started.
- $457,000 in October 2015 to “replenish the contingency” for the project with funds taken out of General Fund “reserves.” According to the staff report, “additional testing” had revealed that the hazardous-materials situation was even worse than it had thought. In addition, the general contractor had socked the City with a $1,298 per day delay penalty because it wasn’t able to work while the soil was being re-tested and removed.
- $862,860 in construction costs overruns (including $675,624 for change orders submitted by the general contractor) in March 2017. The staff report blamed the overruns on “state fees for hazardous waste disposal, the number of rain days, and costs related to constructing two highly specialized buildings in a tight, residential environment with complex utility coordination.” At the same time, Council appropriated another $527,400 – in addition to $63,000 already spent – for furniture, fixtures, and equipment for the EOC. “Prior to opening and to ensure this building is best ready for use in an emergency,” the staff report stated, “the EOC requires control station radio equipment, additional wiring, an audio visual system that includes 6 large screen monitors for use in an emergency, 24 laptops, and other technology (e.g., routers, wireless service, etc.).” First class all the way – but no one explained why such mundane items as laptops weren’t included in the original budget.
We’ve never thought of Mr. Knox White as a fiscal conservative (and we suspect he’d blanch at reading that description applied to him). And, having benefited from the $6,417.98 spent by the firefighters’ union to get him elected to Council, he might be receptive to whatever “vision” the union comes up with for the amenities a new fire station should have. But for now, we’re willing to take him at his word. At the same time, we’ll stick with our own version of a well-known maxim: Eternal vigilance is the price of municipal solvency.
FS3 feasibility study: 2012-02 RFP for fire station no. 3 feasibility study; BRW Fire Station #3 feasibility study
FS3/EOC financing: 2014-07-29 staff report re FS3 financing; 2013-09-17 staff report re refinancing COPs; Final official statement for 2013 COPs
FS3/EOC construction: 2015-05-19 staff report re FS3 construction contract; 2015-09-01 staff report re hazmat contract; 2015-09-15 staff report re additional spending; 2017-03-21 staff report re budget amendments; 2018-04-03 staff report re software contract
FS5 feasibility study: 2019-05-15 Presentation – REVISED; 2019-09-03 staff report re feasibility study for new FS5
Politics often comes down to compromise and alliances, whether based on shared goals or convenience. In the rare case, and one that seems to happen more often – for whatever reason – in Los Angeles County, it can also come down to money, plain and simple.
$6,417.98 won’t have much to do with determining how Mr. Knox White votes on this one. That said I’d imagine he is not looking to go out of his way to gratuitously provoke $6,417.98, or more, in amount, in kind, or in volunteer hours, being spent in his contra next time around.