Los Altos Emergency Operations Center

The city of Los Altos’ current Emergency Operations Center, above, is located in the city’s Municipal Services Center.

The Los Altos City Council last week finalized a design option for a new emergency operations center facility, intended to serve as a communications hub during major disasters. The action came as ham radio operators cited major cost overruns and project delays.

The council at its July 13 meeting signed off on Option C for the new EOC, one of two options the council initially approved in April. A second choice, Option D, was dependent on a federal grant that didn’t materialize. The EOC would house ham radio operators and other emergency personnel.

The council agreed to allocate an additional $132,000 for Jeff Katz Architecture for design work beyond the scope of initial contract work, costing $290,000, which was approved in 2018. City staff reported that $88,000 already paid to the architect from the original contract will carry over to the current $220,000 cost of Option C.

Replacing the current EOC in the city’s Municipal Services Center, the 1,763-square-foot building would be located behind the police station. Option C comes with a more than $2.6 million budget for construction – projected to begin in mid-2022.

Despite the lack of federal grant money, the council still had a choice to go with Option D designs, which allowed for a larger facility at greater cost, but that option would have depended on another source of grant funding. Option D would have created additional space at the EOC for the police department’s information technology unit. The IT division currently operates out of a trailer in the back of the station where the new EOC is going to go.

“No one has answered that question,” said Los Altos Police Chief Andy Galea, when asked where the IT department would relocate.

Councilmember Jonathan Weinberg, after meeting with Galea and interim City Manager Brad Kilger, initially proposed going with Options C and D.

“While I don’t like the numbers we’re seeing, the numbers are justified, and moving forward is the way to go. We don’t want to be penny-wise, pound-foolish,” Weinberg said, noting that taking care of IT now means less funding needed later, when the city eventually appeals to the community to build a new police station.

Pointing to issues of flooding in the police station basement, where 911 communications equipment is located, Weinberg cautioned that equipment failure “will put citizens in harm’s way.”

“At some point soon, the IT division is going to need a new facility and we need to get the equipment out of the existing police station to keep the emergency communications and city servers faithfully going,” said engineering services director Jim Sandoval.

But Councilmember Sally Meadows, after asking about the chances of securing a grant for an IT facility, said she favored Option C only. Weinberg and Mayor Neysa Fligor, initially in favor of both options, joined Meadows in voting for “C” to move the project along. Vice Mayor Anita Enander also voted for “C” and Councilmember Lynette Lee Eng abstained.

Expanding budget

The new allocation raised objections from residents questioning project delays and expanded funding. City officials cited increased costs due to requested changes by the ham operators, the council and the Santa Clara County Fire Department, which required a fire-lane redesign. But longtime ham operator Art Whipple said the city did not consult with the hams until late in the process.

Speaking for a group of fellow hams at the July 13 council meeting, Whipple pointed to a 76% cost overrun that carries a total design cost of $510,000 – $94,000 of it spent on designs the city is no longer using. In addition, he noted that as late as April, the city was anticipating actual construction as early as this summer.

“City staff have been working on the design for a simple, (less than) 1,800-square-foot building with a single restroom and a small kitchen since 2019,” Whipple told the Town Crier. “The delays and cost overruns have not been caused by the hams or the fire department.”

Sandoval indicated that several changes in project direction played a hand in the delays, including a council directive to explore a solar-powered generator, which proved infeasible. There was also discussion about incorporating the EOC into the new police station.

“We’ve had a series of iterative changes in the design as needs have evolved,” Sandoval said. “We’re kind of going back to zero in a design sense.”

According to city staff, Option C funds additional design that includes revisions to floor layout and other “engineering disciplines,” in addition to the design of a retractable or fixed antenna/tower system for the hams.

Whipple noted that design changes between a February 2020 plan and Option C are “very minor,” with the north wall of the planned facility pushed out by 3.8 feet.

“There are no utility, kitchen or bathroom complications, just simple office space,” Whipple said. “These changes should not have resulted in discarding $94,000 worth of design work – are these changes worth another $132,000?”