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Placentia to Decide Fate of OnTrac Managers

August 17, 2004|Jean O. Pasco | Times Staff Writer

Already millions in debt, the city of Placentia will decide tonight whether to continue paying consultants and its former director of public works to manage an ambitious project to lower downtown railroad tracks.

Costs for the OnTrac project have drained about $17 million from the city, where officials sold property, took out loans against future taxes and closed City Hall every other Friday to save money.

A majority of the City Council so far has argued for funding the project, which could see an infusion of state and federal transportation funds next year. They argue that it is critical for better traffic flow and safety.

Councilwoman Constance Underhill said that at tonight's meeting she would recommend ending payments to OnTrac Executive Director Chris Becker and other consultants.

She said the city is preparing to hire a new public works director -- Becker's former job -- with the arrival of a new city administrator next month. City staff could take over the two major elements of the project: rebuilding Melrose Avenue and creating a so-called "quiet zone" where trains would travel without using their horns.

Council members who support continued funding "keep saying we're just this close, we're just this close" to getting a requested $14 million in federal funds and about the same amount from the state, Underhill said, "but now we're just this close to bankruptcy. We obviously can't afford to keep it the way it is."

The city has borrowed so much to keep the project going that it has just $6 million left that it can borrow.

The city most likely will need that money to pay Office Depot for property the city condemned for the OnTrac project -- land for which the city has been paying about $700 a day in interest penalties while trying to find a way to pay for it.

OnTrac was established in 2000 as a joint-powers agency to plan and build the rail project.

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