Six years ago, San Ramon officials touted their plans for a new civic center that would have been part of a roughly 40-acre office, retail and residential development.
In a complex public-private partnership with Bishop Ranch developer Alex Mehran, San Ramon would have traded cash and city-owned land for construction of a new city hall, police station and library.
But the deal hinged on the city taking on new bond debt and paying it off with future sales tax revenue that was supposed to come from the commercial part of the project. Then-City Manager Herb Moniz and Mayor H. Abram Wilson repeatedly refused to answer direct questions about the financing scheme, such as cost of construction, magnitude of the debt and tax revenue projections.
Fortunately, the Great Recession tanked the plan. Moniz retired. And voters in 2011 wisely booted Wilson off the City Council. Under the refreshing leadership of a new city manager, Greg Rogers, and new mayor, Bill Clarkson, officials have scaled back the project to something San Ramon can afford.
We are now learning that the old plan would have cost more than $40 million. That has now been cut to $14.8 million. Rather than occupying costly commercial land, the new city hall will reside on a small corner of the city's existing Central Park.
The size of the building has been cut by more than half. The police station is no longer needed because other facilities were found elsewhere in the meantime. And rather than erecting a new library, the existing one will be renovated and slightly expanded.
Most significantly, the project will require no debt financing. The money will come solely from the prior sale of a city-owned parcel to Mehran and his future purchase of another parcel on which he has an option.
Any future sales tax from Mehran's commercial development will be devoted to needed city operations. The city will not be at the mercy of the retail market strength to pay off bondholders.
The City Council on Tuesday unanimously approved a memorandum of understanding with Mehran. They must still agree on the design and a binding deal that ensures Mehran's company, Sunset Development, builds the city hall within the allotted budget.
While there are still many details to be worked out, the latest plan offers a viable way to deliver on the long-promised civic center without saddling future generations with tens of millions of dollars of risky debt.
The city's leadership is to be congratulated for taking a responsible approach to a difficult problem.