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Newport Is Losing the Space Race

Elbow room is at a premium at City Hall. Officials weigh building a new facility at a time capital improvement funds are shrinking.

June 15, 2003|Stanley Allison | Times Staff Writer

A proposal to erect a new, $30-million city hall in Newport Beach has watchdogs and some city officials questioning the wisdom of such a large expense at a time when the city has had to slash its capital improvement budget.

No one disputes that the current City Hall -- which started out as one building in the '40s and has grown to five -- is bursting at the seams with people, equipment and mountains of paper. A shortage of parking forces some employees to park more than three blocks away.

But Newport Beach has resisted engaging outside firms to provide some municipal services -- a step that observers say other cities have found saves money and could ease the demand for space.

Municipal offices are scattered over about 4 acres, with tropical plants and flowers that sway in the breezes coming off Newport Bay and Newport Harbor. In a city renowned for its super yachts and multimillion-dollar homes, the one- and two-story buildings evoke an unpretentious charm. And the ferns, palms, philodendrons, clivias and dracaenas that thrive in the Mediterranean-like climate make for fragrant and calming walks around the municipal campus.

But inside, that charm is lost on the more than 200 city workers, as well as the thousands of visitors who make their way through the crowded halls and cramped rooms each month. Workers are frustrated with the lack of space to store documents, and visitors struggle to find a place to view and work on drawings and plans, said City Manager Homer Bludau.

"We have people who get their building plans in one building and have to walk over to another building to pay their fees," Bludau said. "We have totally used up all of the space that we have. It's even to the point where it's difficult hiring summer interns because there's no space to put them."

Bludau said a new city hall would probably include a new parking structure and a new fire station, which occupies one of the buildings in the municipal complex. The funds to pay for it could come from the city selling bonds, he added.

By a vote of 6-1, the City Council recently approved spending $568,000 on a study to determine what is needed at a new city hall, including what the public would like. That report is expected to be completed by January.

Results from a preliminary study underscored the problems at the current facility: Work space for each city employee is "smaller than the benchmarks of comparable jurisdictions by between 11% and 25%, and space conditions ... are below desirable levels."

The proposed solution, however, is open to debate.

"We are appalled by the fact that the city has cut back on its capital budget," said Philip Arst, a spokesman for Greenlight, an organization that advocates slow growth in the city. In anticipation of a reduction in state revenues, the city cut its capital improvement budget from nearly $5 million to $1.75 million, said Councilman Don Webb.

"Traffic congestion is the No. 1 concern in Newport Beach and the capital budget included widening and improving some streets," said Arst. He added that Newport Beach is "one of the least efficiently operated cities in Orange County. One solution for the overstaffing problem would be to make themselves more efficient and outsource more nonessential services."

The trend toward outsourcing has grown as cities cut costs yet maintain a certain level of services for residents.

Dana Point, for instance, contracts out its tree and landscaping maintenance, much of its Public Works Department and planning staff, said Doug Chotkevys, city manager.

"I can adjust my level of service based upon need," Chotkevys said. "I don't have to carry a marching army," he said, reducing the costs of pensions and other benefits the city would have to pay.

The preliminary Newport Beach study found that the city could use about 20,000 additional square feet, which "should accommodate our needs for a good 10 years," Bludau said.

Bludau said a new city hall would be at the current site. Employees could work in portables or the construction could be done in phases, allowing work to continue in some buildings while the project is underway.

Webb said he agrees that the city needs more space, but "where I disagree is: I don't feel we need to level the entire site and start over again."

Webb said several buildings need to be renovated and could serve the city for years to come. The city could then spend a fraction of what's projected for one more building to acquire the extra space.

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