Joetopia

Election is perfect time to clean house after Atascadero City Council's Wal-Mart traffic debacle

Joe Tarica is the senior editor for The Tribune. Reach him at jtarica@thetribunenews.com or on Twitter @joetarica.
Joe Tarica is the senior editor for The Tribune. Reach him at jtarica@thetribunenews.com or on Twitter @joetarica.

Anyone from Atascadero’s city government who either endorsed or voted for the Wal-Mart/Annex plan should be ashamed at the level of incompetence that allowed the city to be left holding a minimum $6 million bill for the required traffic improvements.

If you would like an analogy: The farmer didn’t just leave the henhouse unlocked. He opened the door, invited the fox in and took a nap while the chickens were carried away.

That’s how poorly taxpayers have been represented in this case, how badly the public trust has been mishandled.

Unimaginably, in negotiating how to cover the costs of improving the Highway 101 overpass at Del Rio Road to accommodate Wal-Mart and the neighboring Annex project, the city signed a deal based on wildly inaccurate estimates that held developers accountable for capped dollar amounts rather than flexible, proportional percentages.

Two years ago, this sketchy plan repeatedly elicited alarm from various critics — in public comment, multiple newspaper viewpoints and legal action.

In fact, in a June 24, 2012 editorial, The Tribune predicted the very situation the city now finds itself in today, warning, “And what happens if traffic improvements exceed the estimated $4.5 million for roundabouts? City officials point out that Wal-Mart has agreed to pay as much as $200,000 to help cover cost overruns. But why cap it at a particular amount? Why not specify that Wal-Mart will pay its ‘fair share’ percentage of whatever the final figure may be? That would be at least a partial answer to opponents, who point out that road improvements could wind up costing much more than $4.5 million.”

Why not, indeed? It was not far-fetched to think the numbers might grow, but not even the Wal-Mart detractors could have imagined by how much.

Lo and behold, we now learn that the estimates are, in fact, nowhere near $4.5 million and could be upwards of $12 million, a staggering amount that is nearly three times the figure bandied about just two years ago.

If I had been one of the leaders to ink my name to that deal, my heart would be in my throat at seeing that new number today.

What caused the huge discrepancy? The answer is a startlingly simple collection of costs, most of which could have been easily anticipated.

For example, the original estimates did not include costs for design, inspection, environmental document preparation, permitting, materials testing and other services.

Who approves the budget for a major municipal project without accounting for all the major municipal paperwork? That’s like building a house without hiring an architect, while thumbing your nose at the planning department and getting your brother-in-law’s out-of-work roommate to write up the work contracts.

The overpass improvements must also include a sidewalk, hardly an extravagant addition.

And the cost of dirt has increased. No kidding … it will be more expensive to bring in the needed fill-soil, which is just basic inflation.

As if all this weren’t bad enough, the upshot of the mistake is even more galling, which is that this outlandish number on its own in no way will stop Wal-Mart from being built.

That’s because the mega-retailer only needs to account for one of the three proposed roundabouts before it’s able to begin hawking its bargain merchandise.

The other two roundabouts — which are the source of the cost overruns — don’t need to be built until The Annex property is ready for construction, at which point its developers (now Madonna Enterprises), Wal-Mart and the city would share the already preset costs.

Originally, it was supposed to be 29 percent for Wal-Mart ($1.3 million), 24 percent for The Annex ($1.1 million) and 47 percent for the city ($2.1 million), along with a $200,000 buffer for each developer in case of cost overruns. If the new $12 million cost estimate stays as is, Wal-Mart’s maximum capped “fair share” of the overpass roadwork plummets to a paltry 12.5 percent, while Madonna Enterprises’ portion would be 11 percent.

That leaves 77 percent of the bill in Atascadero’s hands, for improvements that are almost entirely attributable to the commercial business of private companies.

I would call it a scam, if it hadn’t been fully stamped with city officials’ approval.

How does this happen? How does a respectable municipality with a council and an attorney and planners and various managers and staffers completely botch such a major project in so many ways?

I don’t want to believe any shenanigans were afoot. But it’s equally difficult to fathom such widespread ineptness. Maybe everyone was so starry-eyed over the idea of luring Wal-Mart’s tax dollars that they entirely forgot to do their due diligence.

So where does this leave us now?

Wal-Mart still gets everything it wants — the ability to build and open its store, along with a sweetheart deal on its municipal obligations — while we sit around like rubes shaking our tin cup for some regional transportation spare change and hoping that maybe one day the better part of the Del Rio project will arrive.

How’s that for a fine how-do-you-do?

The suits in Bentonville, Ark., are probably falling out of their leather chairs laughing.

The only positive out of this mess is the timing of the revelation, arriving just weeks ahead of the Nov. 4 election.

Atascadero residents should think very carefully: Are the incumbents who endorsed this debacle capable of performing their duties?

If not, now’s a perfect time to clean house.

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