The majority of Los Altos City Councilmembers made the controversial (opponents might say foolhardy) decision last week to set the budget at $34.7 million for rebuilding Hillview Community Center.
They did so despite urgent calls not to from the city’s Financial Commission and the administrative services director in charge of the city’s finances. A consultant’s findings backed up the city’s experts.
It may have been one of the boldest council decisions in years, one that could carry both positive and negative repercussions.
The trade-offs were dramatic: Pull the trigger on building a decent community center that has been a vital need for more than 20 years, or fund a shell of a facility because the financial forecasts show that’s all the city can really afford.
Great points were made on both sides of the argument. On one hand, we agree with the fiscally responsible argument: Putting all of the city’s financial eggs in one project handicaps its ability to fund improvements at its other facilities over the next 10 years. The $34.7 million Hillview budget requires the city to take on debt and compromises its budget security against possible threats such as economic downturns and unfunded pension liabilities.
On the other hand, the council had reached the put-up-or-shut-up stage: Make a decision now or wait while construction costs continue to skyrocket and the city is left, again, with no project at all.
As for finances, the city should follow up on Councilwoman Jeannie Bruins’ suggestion to survey residents to gauge their “appetite” for a bond measure to help fund the construction. A 2014 poll showed public support for a $20 million bond. Residents are more likely to support a bond for a facility they can directly benefit from.
One factor not raised at last week’s meeting – a controversial proposal to have the Children’s Corner preschool continue to operate at Hillview – also could give the city a financial lift via a long-term lease.
While it’s unfortunate that action on a new community center didn’t happen a lot sooner, it would be even more unfortunate if it didn’t happen at all. And doing it piecemeal, as some have advocated, may be even more costly than undertaking the project all at once.
Yes, there could be some financial struggle ahead. But once the smoke clears, we’ll be left with a quality community center that will be a vital resource for years to come.