County Government Center in preparation for its grand opening. (Mike McCoy/Daily Republic)
Government center to open
By Matthew Bunk
FAIRFIELD - When county leaders first conceived the idea to build a six-story government complex downtown, the rough, unadorned drawings didn't look anything like the towering glass building that some people refer to as Fairfield's Taj Mahal.
The layout of the campus changed so that the face of the building opened up to the Texas Street artery, a new probation building was added at the rear and costs crept upward as amenities were added. As it all came together, the city's tallest building began to evoke a sense of pride among the 800 or so county employees who now work there.
No longer stuck in cramped workspaces in county offices littered throughout Fairfield, the county's top officials proclaim almost in unison that the government center is a pinnacle of efficiency. Lumping most county departments on a single campus means easier public access to services and more cohesion among staff.
For county Assessor/Recorder Skip Thomson, there are many advantages to being located in the same building as other departments. Not only that, but the two departments under his charge are no longer separated into two buildings across the street from each other."It's nice to have both of my departments on the same floor," said Thomson, who was a county supervisor when the building was approved for construction.
But for some people - the people whose taxes will pay for the elaborate Solano County Government Center - the campus represents government spending gone wild.
To spend or not
The facility includes an administration center, an outdoor plaza, a five-level parking garage with 1,000 stalls, and a two-story, 43,000-square-foot probation building. It also has a cogeneration plant expected to churn out 3 million megawatts of power, meeting more than half of the county government's energy needs.
The facility cost roughly $114 million and will be paid off over the next several decades. With interest on the capital improvement bonds, the county will be on the hook for nearly $160 million. Vacaville City Councilwoman Pauline Clancy called it "wanton spending" that ignores the real needs of residents. She's miffed because some of that money, she said, could have gone toward public safety and health programs."I've been around government for a long time and seen a lot of waste," she said. "And this is the biggest porkbarrel I've ever seen in Solano County."You can't go around building Taj Mahals and still have money to serve the people."Clancy isn't alone. In an online Daily Republic reader's poll, 63 percent of respondents think the county spent too much money on the campus. Another 18 percent thought it was "a little too pricey," and 15 percent thought it was "worth the price." A small number of the 134 people who responded to the poll were undecided.
In contrast, County Supervisor Duane Kromm said he's heard mostly positive remarks about the government center."The vast majority of people have told me 'Cool, nice work,' " he said. "I've heard almost no negatives."One person who withheld her support most surely had Kromm's ear. Supervisor Barbara Kondylis voted against the project several times as it moved forward. However, she now says it's time to move on."It was the total expense that concerned me," she said. "I would have rather seen something not so massive and expensive, but I guess it's time to let go and to look on the positive side."Kondylis opted not to keep the expensive furniture supplied for her office. She brought in her own furniture."It was a personal decision," she said. "What I'm using now is free. I feel better about it."
Lots of money, but a purpose
Sure, the county government center cost a lot of money, county officials admit, but the building is supposed to last for 50, 60, 70 years or more. And by bringing 16 of the county's 26 departments into one location, it can eliminate nearly $1 million of yearly spending on leases for building space that the county once occupied but doesn't own. During the six years of project planning and more than a year of construction, keeping costs at a minimum was a priority, albeit one that came second to quality, County Architect Kanon Artiche said."This is our flagship building," he said. "We wanted it to stand the test of time and to epitomize the best of what Solano County has to offer."
Hardly anyone doubts that goal was accomplished. The building's reflective glass panels loom above a neatly arranged courtyard that greets visitors on their way into a grand lobby lined with cherry wood panels and stainless steel fluted columns.Three pieces of commissioned artwork are on display over marble floors and outdoor fountains. Oak furniture fills the offices of top decision-makers. There's a shower facility, conference rooms on every floor, four elevators and break rooms with refrigerators and microwaves.As for practicality, the facility was built so that it could absorb the growth of county staff for the next 20 years or more.
Right now, only the first and second floors are filled to capacity. There's another 33,000 square feet of space that has yet to be developed, and even more space that's finished but vacant.With some rooms still just concrete and drywall, the county was able to keep costs from overrunning the budget and to stay on schedule during construction. When the need arises, the county will develop those incomplete sections, Artiche said."We wanted to design it so that we can add additional features," he said. "But even the space not being used right now is valuable as storage."From dream to realityWhen the county celebrates its grand opening Saturday, it will culminate nearly a century of loose planning for that site to become a government center. In the 1850s, Capt. Robert Waterman laid the groundwork for what would later become the city of Fairfield. According to historical accounts, Waterman donated land and offered to pay for some of the new county buildings if the town would become Solano County's seat. He knew the designation would bring growth, and although Fairfield wasn't officially incorporated as a city until 1903, Waterman had long before situated it as the seat of county government. The land he donated is where the county government center now stands. It has been the home of county buildings during the past 100 years, occupied by both courthouses and the tax collector's office. The county's decision to build the campus of its future in Fairfield's downtown seems to have solidified the city's position within the county for at least another century. The city, hoping to use the plaza in front of the government center for community events and festivals, pitched in $3 million to help cover a portion of the county's construction costs. The city even promised to pay for maintenance of the grounds, for security and for part of the cost associated with the relocation of the Girl Scouts, who had leased a building at the site. Fairfield officials hope the concentration of government workers and the pleasing appearance of the complex would spur private investment in downtown businesses. Downtown is known as the oldest shopping district in Fairfield, however it isn't necessarily the most desirable place to do business."We're already seeing increased foot traffic downtown," Emily Low, director of Fairfield Downtown Association, said. "What it creates is incentive for merchants to be creative on their own. Now more downtown business owners are looking at what they can do to improve their buildings."Already some of the more run down buildings downtown have undergone redevelopment, presumably in anticipation of the retail spending the county workers will bring to the area. Restaurants and coffee shops are ready to open on nearby street corners that once housed bars and bail bond businesses."Just look at what it's doing for businesses in Fairfield," Thomson said. "There's a direct benefit of having this building downtown."Of course, there's always going to be criticism when the government spends as much money as we did on this project."
Reach Matthew Bunk at 425-4646 Ext. 267 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Material Facts about the Solano County Government Center
The campus includes:
- 343,000 square feet of floor space, a power plant and a five-story parking garage
- 15,000 cubic yards of concrete, or about 1,500 truck loadsn 3,000 tons of steel, enough for 1,500 automobiles
- 30,000 square feet of wall panels, enough to cover a football fieldn 100,000 square feet of precast concrete, enough to cover three football fields
- 65,000 square feet of glass, enough for 300 houses
- 800 doors, enough for 50 housesn 125 miles of telephone cable, enough to run a line to San Francisco and back
- 3,000 light fixtures
What's In There?
First FloorBoard ChambersHuman Resources DepartmentTreasurer/County ClerkTax CollectorSecond FloorGeneral Services DepartmentRegistrar of VotersAssessor/RecorderAuditor/Controller
Third FloorPublic DefenderConflict Public DefenderDepartment of Information Technology
Fourth FloorDistrict Attorney's OfficeVeterans Services
Fifth FloorDepartment of Resource Management
Sixth FloorCounty Administrator's OfficeEqual Employment Opportunity OfficeBoard of Supervisors' officesCounty CouncilProbation BuildingProbation Department