The shape of the Napa city government’s future home may come into sharper focus next week.
Whether to stay the course on a downtown, four-story combination City Hall and police station is the subject of a special City Council meeting on Dec. 11. The discussion will take place just eight days after the swearing in of Liz Alessio and Mary Luros, who were elected to the council last month after warning of financial risks and a lack of public outreach on the civic center. It is estimated to require $121 million, including the cost of temporary offices during construction.
Ahead of the meeting, current and incoming council members have shared opinions pointing to a willingness to rethink the scope – and budget – for a project intended to unify public services under one roof and provide safer, more disaster-resistant quarters for city employees.
Amid ever-rising construction costs in a muscular Bay Area economy, the expense of an all-in-one city headquarters “has escalated beyond what we looked at when we started this,” Mayor Jill Techel said last Tuesday.
At issue to the mayor is whether the civic center – envisioned to include four stories and 130,000 square feet of work space on First Street, at the Community Services Building site – can still be paid for without tapping Napa’s reserve funds.
Plans shared by Napa and its development partner, The Plenary Group, call for a “superblock” of housing, hotel rooms and shops to fill the city’s current City Hall property that also contains the police headquarters and Fire Station No. 1. The resulting tax revenue would be one possible way to cover construction bonds on the civic center a block away.
“The idea was always that we could build a city hall and not need to dip into our reserves to do it, that we always would have a balanced budget,” the mayor said. “The options to do that aren’t there right now, and there’s concern we’d need to spend down our reserves to build the original project.”
Council member Doris Gentry, meanwhile, sought more clarity on the civic center’s budget and features.
“At this point, I’d hit the ‘pause’ button, because the price has still not been nailed down and there’s just too much not yet finalized,” she said. “I think at this point we should be having final numbers on the cost and a design and plans in place, and we don’t. I want to see the final plans and final costs. Seems like the whole thing is creeping cost-wise above our ability to comfortably build.”
“When you look around the city and the things we need to do with roads and streets and sidewalks, you question, ‘Do we want to put $121 million into a city hall project?’”
Beyond its price tag, the civic center has come in for further criticism from some Napa Police officers who have called a single building ill-suited for the higher security needs of law enforcement. During the last two months of the election campaign, the Napa Police Officers Association spent more than $50,000 on mailers backing Luros and Alessio for sharing their concerns about the project’s design as well as expense.
Luros, who is returning to City Hall after spending 22 months on the council in 2015-16, was open to creating a police headquarters separate from other Napa departments – perhaps at the city’s corporation yard, where officials currently plan a building that would start life as a temporary police station before becoming a permanent base for city public works staff.
“It’s something we need to discuss with Napa Police and make sure we have their needs taken care of,” she said. “I don’t think we need to have police and the city hall in one building. Police reps have said they want to be near city hall, (but) it’s up to them what their preference is.”
Alessio, too, suggested looking into separate sites for police and other departments, despite the time already spent on planning since Napa approved Plenary’s proposal in May 2017.
“I prefer we make the best plan long-term because this will have a huge impact on Napa for generations,” she said. “I’d like to do that rather than settle on a plan that’s not best for the community. I’m OK being patient with this process and doing this right for the people.”
One concern among skeptics of the Napa civic center plan is the cost and complexity of finding transitional offices for city departments during an estimated 2 ½ years of construction. While the corporation yard on Jackson Street has been identified as the home of a temporary police station, Napa has not publicly announced sites for other transitional office spaces.
“With the disruption of moving twice” – from the old City Hall to transitional space before moving to the new civic center – “I am no longer a fan of swing space, especially for the police department,” said Techel, suggesting law enforcement could instead occupy its current quarters while waiting for its new ones.
Despite the calls to rethink Napa’s future home base, Councilmember Scott Sedgley cautioned against radical changes he feared could themselves inflate the expense if design and construction are delayed – perhaps into a time of greater economic stress that makes financing harder.
“We recovered from the 2008 recession, our revenue is strong and our reserves are funded, and we would not want to do anything to jeopardize that,” he said. “That said, when do you build these improvements? Most often they come in good financial times. You can’t commit to bonds or financing when finances are tight.”
If built according to existing proposals, the civic center would replace a City Hall dating to 1951 as well as a police station city officials say no longer meets modern safety standards for public safety buildings. Departments are currently spread over seven sites across Napa, some of them leased at a total cost of about $300,000 a year.
The sight of snowball fights, sledding and heavy parkas was typical of the wintertime frolicking of playful children. The locale was not.
Snow had come to Napa – or at least to a patch of ground outside Grace Church of Napa Valley, which on Saturday hosted its inaugural Snow Day with the aid of an ice supplier that produced 15 tons of the white stuff. For four hours, about 950 people – including some children who had seen snow only once or twice, if ever – were let loose to ball up icy projectiles and ride a pair of slopes on round plastic sleds amid the machine-driven drifting of soap-bubble “flurries” that added a decidedly northern touch to a California holiday celebration.
“I saw snow once, in Arizona,” said 7-year-old Logan Smith, as he and his 11-year-old brother Ayden joined a scrum of several dozen youngsters balling up icy chunks and firing them gleefully in all directions.
The snowball-and-sled romp is a departure from Grace Church’s past holiday fare of Christmas musicals, according to Meagan Bruner, the congregation’s director of children’s ministries.
“We took a break from that for a couple of years; we’re trying to do more family events” in December, she said last week. “That’s our goal, to bring families together and give them something to do on the weekend.”
The raw material of Grace Church’s wintry transformation actually came from south of Napa – from the San Luis Obispo home of Glacier Ice, which used ice-shaving equipment to lay down a powdery base for a snowball-throwing patch and two sliding ramps. Hay bales stacked to about 6 feet produced a higher slope for older sledders, with a more gently sloped course set up for toddlers.
The picture-book scene of winter playing stood out during an otherwise sunny and temperate Napa day, with temperatures in the 60s and a few children firing snowballs clad in decidedly non-wintry T-shirts and jeans.
At the edge of the snowball patch, two local mothers watched their 3-year-old daughters dig into the powder with the gusto of children savoring a rare treat.
“This is the first time she’s seen snow in town, so this is fun,” said Ana Maya as her daughter Eliana played with Adilene De Haro. “She’s trying make snow angels, throw snowballs. Only other time she’s seen snow was in Reno last winter – that was my first time too. It’s nice – the kids are definitely having a lot of fun, you can tell. It’s worth it even if it’s just a little bit of snow.”
“It’s awesome; I love the idea of it,” added Cristina De Haro, Adilene’s mother. “Ever since last year (in Reno), she’s been asking to go, she loves it so.”
Several yards away, a succession of children waited in line – behind a rope of silvery Christmas-tree tinsel instead of velvet – for their turn down an icy ramp in a plastic saucer sled, an everyday diversion in cold-weather states but a novelty in wine country.
“I think it’s pretty impressive; I think this was worth the wait,” said Katie Curry after her 7-year-old daughter Gemma finished her slide. “It’s pretty good that it lasted this long,” she added, pointing to the departure of rains that had soaked Napa County for much of the week. (The man-made snow is expected to fully melt within about three days, according to Bruner of Grace Church.)
Though Curry’s family plans a holiday vacation in the Lake Tahoe area, she found this early close-to-home taste of winter a welcome one. “This feels special for a Bay Area kid for sure,” she said.
Napa County proposes to pay up to $80,000 to cover legal costs for Assessor John Tuteur’s defense against charges brought up by the 2017-18 Napa County Grand Jury.
The Attorney General’s office failed to find sufficient evidence to prosecute “willful or corrupt misconduct” charges that could have removed Tuteur from office. Napa County Superior Court on Nov. 14 dismissed the case.
“It is in the county’s interest to defend its employees acting in good faith in the course and scope of their employment against claims that cannot stand up in court,” a county report said.
Napa County could reimburse Tuteur for “reasonable legal defense costs against allegations that are within the scope of his employment and in his capacity as Assessor-Recorder-County Clerk.”
The Napa County Board of Supervisors will consider the matter when it meets at 9 a.m. Tuesday at the county administration center, 1195 Third St. The proposal is on the consent calendar, which is reserved for routine items that might be passed without discussion.
“I undertook the initial defense against the unfounded accusation with the understanding that when exonerated, I would be eligible for reimbursement from the county,” Tuteur said on Friday.
Tuteur hired Barth & Daley LLP to defend himself in the grand jury case. To date, the expenses are $66,917. The $80,000 maximum would cover this bill and remaining expenses that arise, a county report said.
One possible source of further expenses could be an appeal filed by the grand jury in the First District Court of Appeal to avoid releasing investigative materials related to the Tuteur charges. The court dismissed this case on Nov. 27, the county report said.
Another could be the grand jury’s order for a civil suit against Tuteur for failure to pay back taxes, an allegation that was also part of the dismissed ”willful or corrupt misconduct” case. That order is being reviewed by the Attorney General’s Office and state Board of Equalization, a county report said.
The grand jury in the “willful or corrupt misconduct” case made four charges against Tuteur.
One charge arose from a 2008 Assessor’s Office error on how much tax Tuteur should pay for property that included a cell tower lease. The office discovered the error in 2016. The grand jury said Tuteur failed to pay $20,000 in back property taxes.
Tuteur’s defense said the Assessor’s Office chief appraiser finished resolving the complicated matter this year after consulting with the state Board of Equalization. Tuteur owes $1,453 in back taxes and has begun making payments.
Three other charges involved how Tuteur administers the state’s Williamson Act locally. Napa County is among the California counties that choose to offer tax breaks for agricultural land if the owner agrees to keep the land in agriculture for at least 10 years.