In recent weeks, The St. Helena Star has treated our community to two extraordinary Guest Commentaries from Vice Mayor Paul Dohring ("Adams Street property: Promises, promises," July 25) and Council Member Mary Koberstein ("No decision on Adams is unhealthy for the city," Aug. 8). Both relate to the city-owned Adams Street property. They are united in their view (long shared by me) that the property should be developed and a hotel, with its significant TOT (guest tax) revenue for the city (not shared with state or county), is an essential element of any development on the Adams Street property.
The case for balanced development on Adams Street seems to be further strengthened by the synergy between the library property and the Adams Street property and the emerging possibilities for significantly improving or reconfiguring the library building and creating needed infrastructure and parking.
In response to the commentaries, the Star published a letter ("Adams St. property is an investment for the future," Aug. 15) from Ms. Kelly Wheaton, who argues that the city is doing well and there is no current need to develop the Adams Street property. She notes, correctly, that since the 2009 Visioning Process the city has released two Requests for Proposal for the property, and that neither was pursued to fruition by the City Council.
Yet, there is so much in Ms. Wheaton’s letter that is just plain wrong. Good example: she asserts the RFP responses were tabled “because they were not economically viable ‘for developers.”” This is nonsense. For example, in the second RFP round (which included an analysis by the city’s outside financial expert), there was no doubt that one of the developers had the financial capability, that this was likely true of a second, and (in my estimation) questionable as to a third (out of three total responders). Further, their proposals included significant public benefits: an arts center for Nimbus Arts, a new City Hall, and a re-located Signorelli Barn, as well as other public amenities.
Now, Ms. Wheaton states: “the city had no money to develop the property in the way that the community had envisioned.” This goes back to the 2009 Visioning Process, which, as Mr. Dohring correctly pointed out, lacked a financial plan to support it. This was a wonderful exercise, but an exercise in futility, as a financial plan is an essential component of an overall development plan.
As for the anti “we are broke” argument ventured by Ms. Wheaton, the issue is not whether “we are broke” but whether at current levels of General Fund revenue we can maintain present services (though by standards shared by most deficient, especially parks, street cleaning, and other public works services) and also address the capital needs of the city, especially deteriorated city buildings, storm drains, other infrastructure, the fast rising cost of police and fire services (especially fire), and the high cost of dealing with accumulated pension liability for past employee service. (Key point: we have shifted millions of dollars for past city employee service to future taxpayers even though past service liability is the clear responsibility of past and present taxpayers.) Also, it appears to me from the recent Grant Jury Report that our current utility rates are woefully deficient to support the substantial improvement costs to meet mandatory regulatory and other legal requirements of the Water and Wastewater Enterprises and also to put them in good operating order, as required by the city’s bond covenants.
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The Wastewater Enterprise is of special concern. We must meet the terms of a Cease & Desist Order from the San Francisco Regional Water Quality Control Board and legally binding on our city. The cost, according to the Grand Jury, is $19 million. This amount is far greater than the estimated improvement cost in the city’s last rate study, on which current wastewater rates are based. This too will severely impact the General Fund because the City Council will receive enormous pressure through justified pleas from lower income residents to assist with their bills, a General Fund expense. The city must be in a position to provide these subsidies to lower income rate customers if it is to remain diversified.
In time, almost all recent City Council members have come to the realization that the city if it is to provide the services and facilities (well kept parks, decent sidewalks, open space opportunities, acceptable public buildings) desired by its residents needs to move forward with development, including a hotel, on the Adams Street property.
Reasonably priced municipal loan financing may assist (assuming satisfactory demonstration of ability to repay), but new taxation is not an alternative. Voters will decisively reject new taxation.
Let me reiterate the final line of Ms. Koberstein’s prescient Guest Commentary: “Time’s awasting.”
Former Mayor, City of St. Helena