The house at 300 Phoenix Circle. Photo: NorCal MLS.
VALLEJO - Despite community concerns that the city was moving too quickly, a divided Vallejo City Council voted Tuesday night to advance the process of purchasing a residential property adjacent to the city’s water department.
In a 5-2 vote — with Mayor Robert McConnell and District 6 Councilmember Cristina Arriola against — the council amended the city’s water enterprise fund by $800,000 to buy 300 Phoenix Circle.
That amount includes $710,000 the city has offered to acquire the property — complete with a 1,800-square-foot, 4-bed, 2-bath home and separate 500-square-foot in-law unit — and another $90,000 for related expenses for buying the property.
City staff continued to stress that buying the property, located next to the entrance to the Fleming Hill Water Treatment Plant, would provide the necessary security to protect the city’s water supply, initially citing a potential terrorist attack. Staff previously didn’t say exactly how the parcel would be used, but that changed Tuesday when Interim Assistant City Manager Gillian Hayes offered some possible uses.
“We have not actually put our thumb down on exactly what we’re going to do when we move forward with this parcel, but the potential of the increase in security, possible office space, possible emergency center, all of the items that this property could serve for this city to protect this resource are very important,” Hayes told the council.
Interim City Manager Mike Malone, who was hired as the city’s water director in 2017 before being elevated to interim city manager last month, said that Fleming Hill was the target of several break-ins over the past year. He said thieves took about $35,000 worth of equipment, something that hadn’t been made public before. Malone said the plant’s security cameras were in such poor condition they couldn’t help identify the suspects.
To improve security, on Nov. 9 the council also approved a $647,553 contract with Access Control System to install a new locking system at several water department properties.
Malone said the city only moved on acquiring the property after learning it had been put on the market.
“So, because of the way the market works, we felt like we had to move pretty quickly to acquire this particular piece of property,” Malone said.
Acting Water Director Beth Schoenberger said the COVID-19 pandemic only further pushed the already overcrowded staff over the edge. She said the preliminary estimate to add another story on the office building at Fleming Hill would cost $3.5 to $8 million and take two to five years to complete. Schoenberger said about 15 to 20 employees could use the home as an office.
The strongest opposition of the night came from McConnell, who said he had concerns about the lack of information, including an appraisal of the property, from city staff.
“Don’t expect us to be a rubber stamp, just because there is a recommendation before the board. It doesn’t work that way. We’re the decision makers. We’re the public officials — you guys answer to providing staff needs. We answer to the electorate,” McConnell said. “You have to give us the information so we can make an informed decision.”
Hayes said that information, like comparable housing prices, was provided to the council in a previous closed session. McConnell was not at that meeting.
McConnell said he was “inclined to say this is not an intelligent use of $800,000.” The mayor said the city should consider spending the money on infrastructure repairs. “I have a hard time justifying that purchase price,” he said.
In response to a question from the mayor, Hayes said it could take four to six months, including rezoning the parcel, to prepare the property as office space
McConnell ultimately pushed to delay Tuesday’s vote, which the rest of council rejected.
Arriola said she was trying to visualize how it would look changing the home into an office. She further expressed what future expansion of the water department would look like.
“What about five years from now, Beth, as your department grows and you need to expand again?” Arriola asked. “We’re going to look at, what, purchasing hopefully the house next door?”
Several public speakers asked the council to kill the plan to buy the parcel.
“There has been very little information as to why we are buying this property. It seems very shady,” said Andrea Sorce, co-chair of the Solano County chapter of the ACLU. “I just don’t understand why we are in the business of purchasing residential properties.”
Melissa Swift said there was no clear use or benefit to the city and asked if city staff would be living in the home rent free, which drew a response from Councilman Hakeem Brown, At Large, later in the meeting. Brown said the comment along with emails he received before the meeting stating that Malone would take the opportunity to live in the house was a “very racist and ignorant statement.”
“Our water department should not be in the business of acquiring residential property,” Swift said, “especially without ample public discussion of the costs and benefits.”
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