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City Drains Some Reserve Funds to Pay for Arts Plaza : Thousand Oaks: The financing plan relies heavily on debt. But leaders say the $86-million complex is worth it.

October 21, 1994|STEPHANIE SIMON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

In their crusade to boost Thousand Oaks' stature by building a world-class stage and a monumental government center, city leaders have stripped money from an array of municipal accounts, emptying some reserves to pay for the $86-million Civic Arts Plaza.

Led by Mayor Alex Fiore, council members have shoveled cash from at least a dozen city accounts into the towering complex. They have patched together a financing plan that relies heavily on debt: bonds and internal loans account for nearly 75% of the total Civic Arts Plaza budget.

City officials say the performance complex and new City Hall are worth the mammoth expense. The arts center, which officially opens tonight, will serve for decades as a building of note in Southern California--and as a community rallying point.

By raiding reserve funds to pay for the project, however, officials have tied up money that otherwise could have been used to pave roads, run libraries, build trails and maintain countless other city services. And despite prior assurances, city officials now say several of those accounts may never be repaid.

To fund the Civic Arts Plaza, city officials have also sunk the downtown Redevelopment Agency heavily into debt and left little money for its broader task--sprucing up the rest of Thousand Oaks Boulevard.

The Redevelopment Agency has issued nearly $43 million in bonds to pay for the Civic Arts Plaza, and has borrowed another $18.5 million from the city.

For years, Thousand Oaks has been the Ventura County city most flush with reserves for future projects and emergencies.

But with so much money dedicated to the performing arts center, the Redevelopment Agency will have "very little margin" over the next few years, Finance Director Bob Biery said. "We have a few dollars for the boulevard, but nothing of major consequence."

Even the city's long-standing promise to use redevelopment bond money for an auditorium at Thousand Oaks High School and a stadium at Westlake High may be in jeopardy, city officials acknowledged.

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Biery still hopes to meet those commitments by refinancing existing debt and issuing new bonds in 1995. But both he and City Manager Grant Brimhall said funding for the school projects depends largely on issues out of Thousand Oaks' control, such as national interest rates and the state's financial health.

If the state grabs money from redevelopment agencies to balance its budget, as it has for the past several years, "we have a problem," Biery said. "I can't put it any more directly."

Still, Brimhall and Biery repeated reassurances this week that Thousand Oaks remains on solid fiscal footing. They note that the city owns a half-dozen valuable parcels, which could be sold to raise tens of millions of dollars.

"Anyone who would really like to be fair and honest about this (project) would have to say, 'Yeah, it's all right,' " Brimhall said. "This is a good, strong, solid city."

The Civic Arts Plaza, approved in 1990, was to have been paid for fully by a combination of redevelopment funds, the sale of two old city halls, and rent payments from the local park district for space in the new complex.

But when the economy soured, that plan collapsed. In a depressed real estate market, city officials could not unload their old city hall for a good price, so they postponed the sale of the property at 401 W. Hillcrest Drive--leaving a huge gap in arts plaza funding.

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Meanwhile, the park district pulled out of plans to rent $2 million worth of space. And interest rates fell sharply, so money that city officials had invested earned lower-than-anticipated returns.

Consequently, Biery and Brimhall had to overhaul the Civic Arts Plaza budget again and again, juggling city resources to find money to pay construction bills.

With the council's approval, the city dipped first into a capital fund supported by developers' fees from the giant Shapell and Dos Vientos projects. The city then wiped out a $1-million account reserved for parks and trails.

Finally, the city borrowed $13 million from a variety of municipal funds, including those set aside to freshen up the city golf course, update city computers and build housing for low income residents.

The council majority--Fiore, Frank Schillo and Judy Lazar--has consistently defended their decision to funnel cash from a dozen flush accounts into the Civic Arts Plaza.

"(The money) is being used for a city purpose," Lazar said. "It's not like it's being expended for something that is of no use to the city. That, to me, is the bottom line."

As the Civic Arts Plaza's stunning purple-hued auditorium opens, Lazar and other city leaders will congratulate themselves on finally bringing star-studded culture--and Hollywood glitz--to Thousand Oaks. They have often declared that the Civic Arts Plaza represents the city's crowning achievement, the last project needed to transform Thousand Oaks into a self-sufficient, enviably endowed community.

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