Sales tax increase would cover unfunded needs, proponents say

Sales tax increase would cover unfunded needs, proponents say

Michele Ellson
Police Chief Mike Noonan in the city's Emergency Operations Center.

Alameda’s high school swimming pools are on life support, masters swimmer Barry Parker said, and the city and school district are unlikely to continuing paying to keep them open. But $5 million gleaned from a half-cent sales tax increase could build a new, Olympic-size pool that could be used by high school swimmers, young children and adult swimmers alike, he said.

“We have lost a lot of swimmers in Alameda to other communities because our water is so unpredictable,” Parker said, noting the pools’ recent mechanical problems and closures and their size, which he said is inadequate for hosting swim events. So he’s mobilizing swimmers in an effort to pass the half-cent tax increase, which will be before local voters in June.

The City Council voted unanimously on March 7 to put the tax increase before voters. It would pay for city facilities and equipment and would offer funds to renovate the Carnegie Building and also toward building a new swim center and a lighted field.

The list of city assets that could be built, bought or fixed with the estimated $54 million that would be raised by the tax over its 30-year life include city vehicles, a new Fire Station 3 with an emergency operations center, a public safety training center and a second elevator for the main library.

“We can’t do it all through cuts. We’ve been saying that all along. You have to raise some revenue, and this is one of the safest ways to do it,” said City Treasurer Kevin Kennedy, a supporter of the proposed tax increase.

If the tax passes, the city would take out bonds to pay for new facilities up front and use between $900,000 and $1 million of the roughly $1.8 million the increase is expected to generate each year to pay those off. The remaining money would be used to replace city vehicles and equipment, City Manager John Russo said.

None of the money would go toward plugging an expected $4.4 million hole in the city’s general fund budget next year, Russo said, though he said a sudden need to replace a vehicle or repair a building could force city leaders to use money typically budgeted for services to cover those costs instead.

While new sales tax money would pay for facilities, vehicles and equipment in the near term, Russo said he’ll issue an order requiring city departments to start saving enough money out of their existing budgets to cover future needs without the aid of an additional tax. Other city officials said Alameda’s city departments used to do that, but no one could say when or why it stopped, though Kennedy, who said he had criticized the practice, blamed tough financial times.

“If some future council were to pass a budget that didn’t include that money, I think it would be a political problem for them,” Russo said.

Right now, Alameda’s citywide vehicle replacement fund holds about $3 million, which is less than a year’s worth of the cash needed to replace city vehicles, Kennedy said. The fund is administered by the city’s Public Works department, which pays for replacement vehicles based on age, mileage and how well it’s functioning, city officials said.

Kennedy said the city owns about $12 million worth of vehicles and another $3 million to $4 million in equipment. But he said the Fiscal Sustainability Committee he chaired a few years ago determined the city would need to save about $2.4 million a year to fully fund its vehicle and equipment needs if the funds are saved and purchases made on a regular basis.

“We’re going to use the revenue to reset the button on it,” Kennedy said.

Police Chief Mike Noonan showed a reporter the city’s emergency operations center, in the basement of Alameda’s 34-year-old police headquarters. The room is too small and lacks the infrastructure needed to accommodate all the people who would need to be there in the event of a disaster, he said, and he questioned whether the building on top of it would allow safe access after an earthquake.

He said the department will need to replace its computer aided dispatch and records system sometime in the next two years. That system will probably cost around $800,000, Noonan said.

The department bought or replaced 11 of the 75 vehicles it owns in 2011, not including unmarked vehicles, a list obtained by the Alameda Community News Project shows. Another 15, though, had mileage that exceeded the recommended 85,000-mile limit, and two of the 15 had more than double the recommended mileage. The department’s school resource vans date back to 1993, the list shows.

Noonan said replacing unmarked cars, some of which he told the council have failed to start following stakeouts, is also a department priority should the tax pass. A primary need, he said, is an armored car for the department’s tactical team.

“It’s difficult to ask these folks to put themselves in a position without equipment,” Noonan said.

Fire Chief Mike D’Orazi says that firefighters originally lived in an RV outside Fire Station 3 when they learned the station, built in 1922, was no longer safe for them to stay in. But for the last several years they have rented a home next door, at a cost of $3,500 a month plus utilities.

D’Orazi said he was frustrated when he returned from retirement to serve as chief and learned the building, made of unreinforced masonry, hadn’t been replaced. If the tax passes, it would fund a new one tentatively planned at the corner of Grand Street and Buena Vista Avenue that he estimates will cost about $4.5 million.

“After 10 years, it’s enough,” D’Orazi said of the department’s rental home stay.

The tax would also help the department pay for new fire trucks, which he said typically last 17 years, and other land and water equipment. The department’s oldest engine is 27 years old, he said. The cost of the vehicles D’Orazi believes the department will need to add or replace over the next decade is just shy of $8 million, a list he provided to a reporter shows.

It would also cover a new elevator for the main library, which was in the building’s plans but never constructed, and an estimated $3.5 million in renovations to the Carnegie Building, which could be leased to the operators of the Alameda Museum for 10 years with a possible 10-year extension, Russo said.

The tax money also be used to seed investments in a lighted field, a new training center and the hoped-for swim center.

Youth sports leaders won the council’s approval to add the field to the list of items that could be funded by the tax the day after council members nixed a proposed swap that would have traded the Mif Albright golf course to a developer for land that was to have been developed into sports fields. Russo said the city could offer $1 million of the field’s estimated $1.9 million cost, an amount he said should cover the turf, and that it will also donate land somewhere on the West End. Sports leaders will have to raise the rest.

D’Orazi said the training center would include a burn tower and computers for Alameda firefighters and city employees to train with; he said training new firefighting recruits in Alameda County’s academy costs $10,000 per recruit. D’Orazi said he’s hoping public safety leaders from other cities might be willing to invest in an expanded facility that can be used by agencies across the region.

“I know this is a constant source of frustration for different agencies,” D’Orazi said of other agencies’ efforts to find places to train.

Parker, who said his father chaired the committee that built the Emma Hood Swim Center at Alameda High 57 years ago, hopes the tax money will cover both a 50-meter pool and a 25-yard warm-up pool; Russo said the $5 million was an estimate for the cost of the 50-meter pool, locker rooms and bath and shower facilities.

Russo, who said the city is still trying to lock up a location for a new, seven-acre swim center, said he doesn’t think the city can continue to invest in the high schools’ existing pools, and that neither the school district nor the city can afford to build new ones. Schools Superintendent Kirsten Vital wouldn’t comment on the future of the pools, saying more information would be available when city and school leaders meet to discuss them next Monday.

Parker said he hopes to raise enough money to include a heated pool that could be used for seniors doing water aerobics and maybe, an endless river and slide, the latter being something that he said is growing in popularity due to the revenue it can generate. He said swimmers are putting together a nonprofit that could operate a swim center and rent the water to the city, schools, swim clubs and citizens, who have to compete for time in Alameda’s existing pools.

“We’re trying to make it so the pools can be viable and be self-sustaining,” Parker said.

What it would cost

Here are some items that could be funded or partially funded by a proposed half-cent sales tax increase, and their price tags. Costs are estimated.

Olympic size pool, lockers and shower facilities: $5 million

Fire Station 3 with Emergency Operations Center: $4.5 million

Carnegie Building renovations: $3.5 million

Lighted all-weather field: $1.9 million

Police CAD-RMS: $800,000

Fire engine: $650,000-$925,152

Fire boat and dock: $490,000

Police patrol car: $30,000-$35,000