A volunteer citizen committee designed to keep tabs on the city of Novato’s expenditures decided that spending $12 million to $15 million on a new office building already approved for city workers should not warrant further debate before the Novato City Council.
Two motions were made Thursday to backtrack on the council’s May decision to construct a 22,000-square-foot office building at an Old Town site for about 60 city workers plus a parking lot on the ground level. Neither motion earned a second during the vote.
More than 1,000 people have signed a petition to have the council revisit its decision and slow down the process of a new building at Machin Avenue and Cain Lane, site of an existing city parking lot just behind Grant Avenue businesses and just across the street from the Novato Police Department. However, the Measure F Oversight/Citizen Finance Committee threw its support behind the city staff and council by opposing a reopening of the issue at the council level four months after receiving unanimous approval.
“I think it would set a bad precedent to take something that wasn’t a close decision (on the council) and constantly remake it,” said Novato resident Tom MacDonald. “If you did, the next decision that comes down, everyone would be second-guessing the council. It should be a rare instance when you should reopen a decision. … Every other council we’ve had has had trouble making a decision and sticking to it over time, so when this council does make a decision we should stick to it.”
The finance committee meetings usually don’t attract any guests, but the small conference room at the city’s current offices at 75 Rowland Way was packed with about a dozen other people Thursday morning. City Manager Michael Frank went over all the reasons why city planners recommended building a new complex in the Civic Center area of Old Town rather than purchasing an existing building somewhere in town or building a new home at the McPhail’s property just off Highway 37.
Frank said the lease at 75 Rowland is costing the city $50,000 a month, and it would be doubled if the city has to extend its lease beyond the contract that expires in September 2013. “So we need to get out of here, point blank,” he said.
The city has been looking for a new home for its employees for more than 30 years. It spent more than $1 million on various efforts at different times, having architectural designs made, but all efforts were abandoned until the current plan was approved in May. An architect was hired in July.
“This site has been in the city’s general plan for decades,” said former council member Susan Stompe, an advocate of the new offices on Machin Avenue. “… It’s been a long hard discussion, and we’re down to the wire here timewise. That’s why the council made the decision after looking at myriad other ways to address the needs for permanent city offices.”
Frank clarified the price tag of the new building because he said estimates he heard by the public — $700 per square foot — were inaccurate and misleading. The $12 million to $15 million estimate included $1.5 million for the ground-level parking, $800,000 for possible additional parking, $500,000 for possible LEED certification for green technology, $320,000 for various fees and moving costs and $150,000 for legal costs.
“That figure of $12 million to $15 million includes a whole host of things that if you’re a private company or a business owner or an individual you would not include,” he said. “The reason it’s included is so that we’re not hiding anything. We’re capturing the full package of what it might cost in the end. Whether various elements get included or not remains to be seen.”
City staff looked at more than a dozen existing buildings to purchase in 18 months prior to the council’s May decision, but none of them were a perfect fit. Many buildings, although the right size, were too old and more than halfway through their useful life, and some would’ve required millions in structural upgrades. Only 75 Rowland was considered a legitimate option, but the price tag — rumored to be in the $17 million range — was too stiff for the city.
Money for the city administrative offices comes from cash formerly owed to the general fund by the Novato Redevelopment Agency. The city sold bonds earlier this year and raised almost $17 million for capital projects. Eighty-five percent of those funds must be spent within three years — a deadline that helps explain why the city is antsy to move forward with architectural design options.
None of the money destined for the administrative building would come from proceeds of Measure F, a half-cent sales tax increase over the next five years that was approved by voters last November.