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St. Helena needs a new City Hall, not a Taj Mahal

St. Helena needs a new City Hall, not a Taj Mahal

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Our current situation is a perfect time to observe, reflect, think with a quieter mind, and be thankful. I’m thankful our city budget is not overly dependent on TOT (hotel revenue). Our revenue is more balanced with property taxes which are the most stable source of revenue in good times and bad. Cities to the north and south are not so fortunate. You may not know this, but we earn sales tax on all those packages delivered by FedEx and UPS. Sales tax revenue is based on the destination; so order away and buy online while our shops, restaurants, and other businesses are closed. Given our city’s large financial reserves, more stable revenue sources, sellable property, and lack of borrowing, we are in a fantastic position to weather this storm.

We can continue to support our hardworking city employees and their families by continuing to pay them and continue their benefits such as health insurance. We can even continue with planning and preparation for projects to be worked on once activity restrictions are loosened. Important and necessary projects should not be in jeopardy of funding.

However, we must be mindful that we are in this position because we have been smart with our budgeting and spending and have what the finance people call “dry powder.” As we reopen, we need to keep in mind how fortunate we were during these difficult times and remember what type of town we are. Spending $40 million on buildings makes no sense. Building a new library, a Taj Mahal of a City Hall, and a meeting space (when we have many available around town) is wasteful. It is spending way beyond what any prudent family or business person would do. Why would we spend $7 million on City Council meeting space when we rent it from the school district for $20,000 a year? It is not what we would do. What is wrong with annual sidewalk repairs and tree replacements as needed? We don’t rip up our entire yards for a complete redo verses the prudent annual maintenance, occasional tree and shrub replacement. Spending $4 to $7 million on new sidewalks, trees, and some benches is not going to fill the empty storefronts downtown. Smaller shops, creative businesses, and reasonable rents will fill the empty storefronts. Let’s not rob money from street repair funding (Measure T) to rip up and replace the entire sidewalk and landscape of downtown.

We need to maintain our strong financial position to weather future storms and be prepared for the unexpected. We have the funds to proactively begin to fix our storm drain system before another emergency. Let’s use some of our reserves to accelerate road repair, and bike and pedestrian safety (have you seen all the people walking and biking and being outside?). We have a great library, sized right for our community. We don’t need a new one; let’s just complete the necessary maintenance and spruce it up. We need a new City Hall, but not a Taj Mahal. Let’s build something appropriate and consistent with who we are. Let’s continue to use Vintage Hall (at only $20,000 a year) for City Council, Planning Commission, and other community meetings. Let’s not put other spaces and facilities out of business.

Sell Adams Street if you want, but don’t go wild as if we won the lottery, blow all that money, and borrow to the high hills to build things we don’t need or build beyond our needs. Let’s be smart with our finances and keep some “dry powder.” Let’s be mindful of who we are and act accordingly.

Mark Smithers

St. Helena

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