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City Studies Ways to Spend $7-Million Windfall

Thousand Oaks invites residents to discuss the best use of surplus developer fees.

February 24, 2003|Gregory W. Griggs | Times Staff Writer

While other cities desperately scramble to prepare for state funding cuts, Thousand Oaks finds itself in the enviable position of having a sizable pot of money and no clear idea what to do with it.

Residents are invited to a special City Council meeting Tuesday night in Newbury Park to discuss how best to spend about $7 million in developer fees.

The unrestricted cache of money is largely derived from payments made over the last 12 years by developers of two major Newbury Park housing tracts, Dos Vientos Ranch and Rancho Conejo. The money -- part of a total of $21.1 million the developers agreed to pay -- along with various off-site improvements and other fees are intended to compensate for effects of the developments.

The city has used this windfall mostly for its own building projects and to buy land, such as Rancho Potrero and other open space. Since 1992, each fund has also been tapped for $100,000 annually to repay bonds the city issued to build the Newbury Park Library.

Though having extra dollars available is reassuring at a time when Sacramento lawmakers are threatening cutbacks to cities, it's unlikely this money would be spent to cover Thousand Oaks' short-term losses, said Deputy City Manager Scott Mitnick. The city is bracing for a possible $4-million loss in state funds.

"The money is to be used for a public benefit; the definition is flexible and open," Mitnick said. The City Council's practice has been to use these funds for one-time capital improvement projects, not recurring operating expenses, he said.

Councilman Dennis Gillette said he would approve raiding those funds "only as a last resort, because once the money is gone, it's gone."

The funds became an issue in last fall's council campaign after current Mayor Andy Fox suggested setting aside $1 million to pay a third of the cost of a gymnasium at the new Sycamore Canyon School. His political opponents cried foul and suggested Newbury Park residents should be polled to determine how they thought the money should be spent.

Once word got out that the city had millions left from Dos Vientos' builders, residents came forth with several proposals. They range from building a new fire station or municipal pool to erecting sound walls and purchasing more open space.

Some of the most popular proposals center on helping to pay for improvements to the stadiums and athletic fields at Newbury Park, Thousand Oaks and Westlake high schools.

An e-mail and letter-writing campaign flooded council members with messages from residents looking to support all three schools. A separate group seeking to renovate Newbury Park High's Panther Stadium wants the city to help it close the gap between the nearly $85,000 it has collected and its $1-million fund-raising goal.

Exactly how much money actually will be available depends on how the council allocates $7.5 million left from the Dos Vientos fund and $3.5 million from Rancho Conejo. An additional $2.9 million is expected to be paid as the two communities are built out over the next few years.

Finance Director Candis Hong, who will become interim city manager April 1, said Thousand Oaks now collects interest payments on the fund balances. She said $6.7 million of the total $13.9 million should continue to go untouched to cover the yearly mortgage on the Newbury Park Library, which runs through 2032.

With the remaining money, Hong said the city could either borrow against the interest income or spend half on various projects and keep the rest invested.

For now, the council has agreed to leave the entire nest egg untouched, establishing a public benefit endowment fund and agreeing only to spend or borrow against the investment returns. Once the council has taken public input, it will decide how to proceed.

The town hall meeting is to begin at 6 p.m. in the Newbury Park High cafeteria, 456 N. Reino Road. For details, call (805) 449-2121.

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