Visalia City Council members expressed shock at the projected cost of the next phase of its Long-planned civic center project.
The total cost of Phase 2 of the project, which includes a public safety office building, evidence lab and new city council chambers, will cost up to $70 million, nearly triple the $25 million price. dollars the board heard during its last major update on the project in August.
Councilman Brett Taylor called the revised figure “mind-blowing” at a recent council meeting. The freshman board member suggested a “second set of eyes” to look at the drama price and compare it to what other local agencies are paying.
“I just want to make sure that we are careful with our public funds and that we manage these funds appropriately,” he said.
Councilman Greg Collins also balked at the “rather shocking” estimate.
“I’m confident we can find the money,” he said. “That doesn’t mean we have to spend it all.”
COVID pandemic, supply chain issues among factors driving up costs
City officials attributed the dramatic price increase to a number of factors. The original estimate did not include the City Council Chambers or the Evidence Building. The police building floor plan was also increased from 40,000 to 65,000 square feet to increase the expected life of the buildings by 20 to 30 years.
By moving the city council chambers across the street from the police building, the city will also pay more for utility and infrastructure works. However, these costs could be recovered when the municipal administration building is finally constructed in phase 3 of the project.
Global increases in construction and material costs associated with the ongoing coronavirus pandemic and various supply chain lockdowns have also been blamed for rising costs.
The projected cost is now $925 per square foot in total.
“We now have the ability, through good decisions made by previous councils, to move this project forward and fund the project,” Mayor Steve Nelsen said. “I totally support this project. I support the aspect that we have our eyes on the project, and I also strongly support that we’re going to come in below estimate.”
Nelsen and Vice Mayor Brian Poochigian serve on the Civic Center Planning Committee. Both have defended the project – and its projected costs – to their skeptical fellow council members.
“That’s what councils have been talking about for the past 30 years, and they’ve been saving money to do it. And now here we are,” Poochigian said. “You’re spending more now, but in the long run it’s going to pay off when you have a facility that’s all centrally organized. … We won’t talk about it for 30 years. We’ll be in these buildings for the next 40 years or more. .”
Newly appointed councilor Liz Wynn said she remained in favor of the scheme but called for increased transparency with four sitting councilors re-elected in November.
“My booking should not be misinterpreted as being against this,” Collins said. “I just want it done right, and I want it to be effective.”
What does Visalia get for the money?
The police office building would have room for 200 people, although Visalia Police Department personnel are not expected to reach those numbers for many years. In the meantime, city finance and fire personnel would temporarily work out of office until the planned city hall building is completed at an unknown future date.
City Manager Leslie Caviglia said VPD personnel are currently “embedded” into their current facility, making the new police building a priority.
“They’re using closets, they’re using every space possible, so I think it’s a very cramped situation,” she said.
The new city council chamber would hold 200 people, including an adjoining hall that could accommodate 100 more. The rooms would also have community meeting rooms to function as a large meeting space for city business and other functions.
The project is expected to begin construction in early 2024 with a move-in date of summer 2025.
Visalia Chief Financial Officer Renee Nagel said the city currently has about $41 million saved in its civic center fund. The remaining balance could come from a hodgepodge of other funds the city has saved over the past few decades and expected general fund surpluses in years to come.
Nagel explained that the estimate given to the board was conservative to account for any potential cost overruns.
The council finally voted unanimously on April 4 to go ahead with the project, increasing its contract with Darden Architects by approximately $1.5 million. The company had requested the increase since the scope of the design increased by 51%.
“I just want to assure you that if you want to take the next step, we can afford it, it’s fine,” Nagel said.
Joshua Yeager is a journalist at the Visalia Times-Delta and a member of the Report for America corps. It covers the news deserts of Tulare County with a focus on the environment and local government.