WALLA WALLA — The City Council, cautious about not breaking a promise to return excess voter approved funds to the public, tabled a proposed $66,000 electrical upgrade to City Hall because the funding source was from leftover police bond.
“This is a convenient location to find money. And I am not sure that this money doesn’t need to go back to the people,” Council member Jerry Cummins said at Wednesday’s meeting. His comment began a lengthy debate over using the funds for a project that went beyond renovating the old police offices in the basement of City Hall after new police headquarters were built.
With all members present, council members voted unanimously to table the proposal, even though city officials reported they had the support of the same citizen’s committee that criticized city officials in 2011 over another plan to use police bond funds to renovate the basement.
The original bond, which voters passed in 2010, allowed for up to $300,000 for basement renovation. But it was clear to the Council that the project would have benefited the entire City Hall building.
The work would have replaced outdated circuit boxes in the basement and other locations in City Hall.
“If the police had not moved out of there, this probably would not have been done,” Cummins said.
Despite the project covering more than just the basement, Debora Zalaznik, who chaired the police bond committee, said she supports the expenditure.
“When you look at what it is down there it is in bad shape,” she said.
In 2011, bond committee lambasted city officials for what they believed would have been in an inappropriate use of excess bond funds that would have gone beyond work on the former police offices.
The conflict ended with City Manager Nabiel Shawa affirming the city would only use the funds for necessary improvements.
“The budgeted $300,000 shall be used for moving out the Police Department, cleaning up their space and making repairs to the existing space caused by the move,” Shawa wrote in an email to the Union-Bulletin in March 2011.
The scope of work, he said, was to include environmental inspection and remediation; electrical wiring repair as needed for safety code compliance; repairs of the police radio antenna the City Hall roof; removal of old furniture, fixtures and alterations made for police needs; and repainting and reflooring if damaged due to the move.
So far, police bond funds have been used to repair to the antenna and to remove asbestos for a total of about $100,000.
Earlier this year, Zalaznik and former Police Chief Chuck Fulton, who also was on the original bond committee, toured City Hall to review the proposed electrical work.
“We both went over what they wanted to do and both of us agreed 100 percent with what they wanted,” Zalaznik said. But she also noted the committee has no plans to formally meet to discuss the electrical work.
“At least it was nice to be asked in advance whether we were going to scream bloody murder,” Zalaznik said, commending the city for reaching out to them.
Even Zalaznik and Fulton’s OK, the Council was still walking on eggshells over use of any excess funds because of lingering public sensitivities
going back to the Walla Walla School District’s $19.5 million bond in 2007 to build a new Edison Elementary School.
Two years after the Edison bond passed, school officials decided to use $1.6 million in excess funds to upgrade other schools rather than return the money to the public. That decision angered many voters and continues to be a contentious issue in bond and levy campaigns, such as the failed Walla Walla High School reconstruction and renovation measure and the city’s aquatics center levy over the past year.
“Even if the citizens committee has reviewed this array of projects,” Mayor Jim Barrow said at Wednesday’s meeting, “I am concerned that the citizens may feel nonetheless that they a have been snookered.”
The City Hall electrical repair project will go back to the city managers officer for further study.
Alfred Diaz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 526-8325.