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Santa Monica City Council to Weigh Funding Options for New $32 Million Fire Station

Santa Monica Real Estate Company, Roque and Mark

Harding Larmore Kutcher & Kozal, LLP  law firm
Harding, Larmore Kutcher & Kozal, LLP

Pacific Park, Santa Monica Pier

By Jason Islas
Staff Writer

December 17, 2013 -- With voters unlikely to approve a bond measure, City officials Tuesday will look for another way to finance a new $32 million fire station in Downtown Santa Monica.

Voters polled were lukewarm about the possibility of voting to raise taxes in November to pay to replace an aging fire station on 7th Street and other public safety improvements.

As a result, the City will likely have to shoulder the financial burden itself, according to officials.

“Only a simple majority of voters (51 percent) would support a $78 million public safety bond measure that would have funded a number public safety and other improvements,” staff said in its report of a poll taken in September.

“Even after asking for a lower public safety bond amount ($48 million), support remained relatively unchanged (52 percent) and significantly below the super majority requirement,” staff said. “In other words, the level of support is well short of the super majority (66 percent plus 1) needed to pass the measure.”

That means the City Council will have to decide Tuesday whether it will pay for the project -- and another $3 million in improvements -- with a $35 million “lease revenue bond.”

Since that bond would be paid back from General Fund money, it would only require Council approval, officials said.

City officials have underscored the importance of building the fire station.

Fire fighters “are our first line of response for any man-made or natural disaster,” said Mayor Pam O’Connor. “We need to make sure that these buildings can continue to operate” in the event of a disaster.

Officials said that Fire Station One is not up to modern standards and Fire Station Three -- on 19 th Street -- needs seismic retrofitting.

Originally, the City had hoped to use funds from Santa Monica’s now-defunct redevelopment agency (RDA). Since the State shut down RDAs throughout California in February 2012, Santa Monica must look elsewhere to fund infrastructure projects and affordable housing.

The September poll also asked residents about options funding the City’s affordable housing program, but staff said those results would be discussed next year.

Perhaps the biggest -- and most expensive -- project that was halted after Sacramento’s dissolution of RDAs was Santa Monica’s pending $50 million overhaul of the historic Civic Auditorium.

Efforts to determine how to fix the 55-year-old venue, once home to the academy awards and concerts by the likes of James Brown and the Rolling Stones, have included talk about a possible bond measure, similar to the one contemplated for the fire station.

While voters weren’t keen on the bond measure for the fire station and public safety improvements, O’Connor thinks that doesn’t necessarily mean they will reject one if it’s proposed for the Civic Auditorium.

“I would hesitate to predict because there are so many external factors,” she said. For one thing, “there’s no advocacy group out there for fire stations.”

The Civic Auditorium project has won strong support from residents and local activists who want to see the building restored to its former glory.

Popularity is just one factor. The economy is another, O’Connor said.

While public safety infrastructure improvements may not be as exciting an issue as saving the Santa Monica Civic, she said, it is no less important.

Shelling out the cash to make sure that when a major earthquake hits, the City’s first responders will have functional bases of operation, will mean the difference between life and death, she said.

Still, this isn't the first time Santa Monicans have rejected a bump in property taxes to fund public safety improvements.

In 1996, voters failed to pass Proposition EE, a $30 million bond measure which would have offset the cost of a $40 million emergency services building.

While polling showed that only a slim majority of residents would approve a bond measure today, Proposition EE was defeated by only a five percent margin.

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