WatchSonoma Watch

Santa Rosa mulls plans to build new senior center


Santa Rosa says it can’t afford to run the senior center it has, but that may not stop it from spending millions to build a new one.

The City Council will grapple with that apparent contradiction next week when it considers whether to spend $2.4 million on the shell of a new senior wing of the Finley Community Center even as it begs for donations to keep the aging senior center on Bennett Valley Road open.

“It does sound funny, doesn’t it?” admits Carolina Spence, executive director of Seniors Inc., the nonprofit founded in 2002 to raise private donations for the project.

But it makes sense for the city to move forward now despite its budget crunch because the same economic forces decimating its operating budget have created a favorable bidding climate for building projects, said Marc Richardson, director of the Recreation, Parks and Community Services.

“We can buy more for our money right now,” Richardson said.

When the project was designed several years ago by architect Larry Simons, he estimated it would cost $8 million. But the recession and resulting construction industry slump has made competition among contractors fierce. The result is that bids are coming in 25 to 30 percent cheaper than they did just a few years ago, Simons said.

“The city is really wise to do this at this time,” Simons said.

Artist's rendering of proposed senior center at Finley Community Center.

The senior center is in a cramped facility on Bennett Valley Road near Santa Rosa Avenue. The 80-year-old former school has no air conditioning, is a mere 6,000 square feet and needs significant upgrades.

The new senior wing would be a two-story, 24,000-square-foot addition on the south side of the Finley Community Center. It would house an auditorium, café, billiards room, art gallery, kitchen, library and meeting rooms.

The new building will be energy efficient and easier to operate because it will be part of an existing facility instead of a standalone building, Simons said. After 5 p.m., it is envisioned the center would be shared by other community groups, he said.

The city is paying for the project with a combination of park development fee revenues and private donations. Seniors Inc. has given $480,000 toward the first phase of the project. The city’s $2.4 million comes from fees paid by developers, much of it “squirreled away” during the “boom years,” Richardson said.

Those fees, which run about $8,000 per single-family home, must be spent on park projects, Richardson said. Using them any other way is illegal, he said.

The city doesn’t have enough money to build the project outright, however.

Rather than wait, it intends to build just the shell now, and attempt later to raise the money for the interior, Richardson said. The shell should take about a year to complete. The winning bidder was A.E. Nelson of Rohnert Park.

Construction could begin in August with the shell completed in a year.

The city will do another round of bidding to complete the interior, which in the current climate would probably cost $2.5 million, Richardson said.

The shell should serve as a powerful fundraising tool, Spence said. It’s much easier to get people to donate to a project that is under way than one that has been on the drawing board for years, she said.

“It’s kind of that build-it-and-they-will-come theory,” she said.

Some donors have waited a long time to see the project get under way, and skepticism has grown about whether it would ever get built, Simons said.

“If we can get the first phase of it up, my wish and desire is that people will then see that it is a serious project that’s going to happen,” Simons said.

Spence said she would hope the city could run both facilities as senior centers.

If the economy turned around, that’s a possibility, Richardson said. But with the state of the city’s finances, it’s more likely the senior center services would be moved to Finley. The existing senior center staff would be able to run the larger center without cost increases, he said.

Spence said she hopes it doesn’t come to that.

“This is a big enough city to have more than one senior center,” she said.

3 Responses to “Santa Rosa mulls plans to build new senior center”

  1. Grey Whitmore says:

    While I agree about how government funding works, I do think it is important to understand how funds like this are set up and laws are passed.

    When a government body passes a law such as this, it specifically notes how such funds can be used. In this case, developers have paid into a rec and park fund set up for just such projects. The goal is for development to add to the community.

    This structure makes it illegal for a government body to raid these funds. Yes, yes I hear you, what about Social Security, etc. Technically those funds are still there, even if the funds are gone and cities aren’t really allowed to do such things.

    Anyway, if the City of Santa Rosa tried to use these funds for something else, it would be illegal.

    And yes, this is crazy. The way we fund government is crazy but I do think it is important to understand what is happening, so that you can make intelligent comments.

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  2. Dan says:

    OK, so the city obviously has the money set aside in some fund other than the general fund to pay for this project. Lyn’s comment is spot on. When are we going to get our priorities straight and fund core government functions before pet projects. The excuse that the money for these pet projects comes from some other fund is getting pretty tired. A second senior center would be great, but can we afford it? What I didn’t hear in Marc Richardson’s comments was how he proposes paying the operating costs. If we’re having trouble meeting the operating costs on the existing center, where does the money come from to fund the additional costs of a second center? It really makes me wonder what Richardson and his colleagues are thinking?

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  3. Lyn says:

    My, my. While the city struggles to fund core functions of government, money for “special” projects is always available. By now the fraud going on here should be obvious to all.

    “Squirreled away” money is never available for repairing roads, maintaining parks or paying police and fire fighters. For that, we need a tax increase.

    When will we first dedicate money to core government functions and then, if short, ask voters for a tax increase to pay for a senior center? Absolutely never. Because everyone knows what the election result would be. Hence, the con job.

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