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Thursday, April 17, 2014

Rec district should have made operations plan available

Posted Wednesday, November 19, 2008, at 9:48 AM

The Western Elmore County Recreation District is headed by three good-hearted, sincere people with a vision for a community center that, in basic concept, is something that many people in the area would like to have.

Until recently, since the district was formed in 2000, it operated very much under the radar.

It offered a few fun runs and took some kids to Boise for trips to recreational facilities there, and quietly worked on its plan for a community center.

But a year ago it changed its tax structure, and its quiet existence as a government taxing entity began to unravel.

Before, it had utilized a "hearth tax," a tax of $34.50 per year per household residence. Commercial property, farmland, utilities, all avoided being taxed, and whether you were a poor family struggling to make ends meet or a wealthy family, you paid the same amount. Then it quietly changed to a mil levy, without making sure the public was aware of that change and why, and that resulted in people, especially businesses, that hadn't been taxed, suddenly getting an extra tax bill. And because mil levies are adjusted based on the value of property owned, some residents saw their property taxes for the district skyrocket.

Which made them suddenly wonder just what the district had been doing all those years. They wanted to see some proof that it was actually moving toward its goal of a major community center. After seven years of planning, they wanted to see the plan.

The spotlight was suddenly turned on a group not used to that, and it showed, in how they handled the public demands to see what they'd been doing all those years.

A year ago last summer, during a public "coffee with the council" meeting, their former director had indicated they were close to presenting a final plan and promised to go before council in September of that year and explain where they stood. But it didn't happen, and more and more people were starting to ask just what it was they'd actually accomplished after seven years.

The director resigned to take another job about that time, so it seemed reasonable to give them a chance to get their internal reorganization settled. But when we started asking for an update on their status, we kept getting put off, being told over and over again they were close and needed just another month or so before announcing their plans. Finally, in March of this year, I ran out of patience and insisted we do a story on where they stood. In retrospect, they probably still weren't ready to talk, because it didn't go well. The story wound up raising more questions than they were in a position to answer, even though many people thought that after more than seven years of planning those answers should have been readily available.

At that time, they were talking about building a $10 million facility, but they weren't going to ask for a bond issue to pay for it. They believed they could create a contract with a builder that would allow them to pay for the community center over time out of their tax revenue, which had climbed significantly from about $250,000 a year to over $400,000 a year due to the change in their tax structure. Combined with what they'd banked, and a federal grant, they thought the plan was feasible.

But they didn't have an actual operating plan. That was still in the works, and it was something people really wanted to see.

In the end, the lack of answers, combined with what can only be described as clumsy public relations, a product of never really having had to do it before, merely added to the pressure and eventually resulted in the first challenge to a board position the district had ever faced. It became one of the major political issues of the local election season.

Much of the answers the public was seeking would be found in the draft operations plan, but it wasn't ready until October. And then things got worse because that plan wasn't quickly made available to the public.

It was mailed on Oct. 10 by the consulting firm the district had hired to develop it. We're not sure when it arrived, but our own requests to see it, and those of several citizens, went unanswered. Only the district officials, and apparently a few close "insiders" actually saw the document prior to the election.

Instead, anybody who asked for it was handed a two-page summary of what it said. Since the summary was available well before the election, the complete document had to have been available as well. We couldn't get it in time to print a story about the plan before the election, and in fact, as late as the Monday just before the election our request for the document was denied. We were told we had to ask the WECRD board directly for it. Actually, according to state law, it was a public document that should have been provided, in total, upon the request of any member of the public, from the moment it was received by the district.

But while the summary that was released prior to the election was quite positive, it essentially being the cover letter sent by the consulting firm to the district, it lacked the key details many people wanted to see.

And the devil is always in the details.

I don't know if it would have made a difference in the election -- it may have strengthened their hand, it may have hurt it. But the district should have made it available to the public the moment it arrived, and some people are now accusing the district of a certain devilment in the delay.

Having had a chance, after the election, to review the document, I do have some concerns.

The fact that it calls for an annual operating loss is no surprise. That was expected and would be normal for a public facility like that. Whether or not it still leaves them enough money to pay for the building as well is still anybody's guess.

The square footage cost for the building seems low, well under the $200-plus per square foot it is currently costing public buildings under construction (and construction costs continue to skyrocket on a weekly basis). So I question that assumption by the district.

It also calls for about 10 percent of the households in the city to spend more than $400 a year on season passes, and far more households to use it on a fairly regular basis. I'm not sure about the methodology behind that assumption, but it seems high in my opinion. In fact, I think all of the revenue assumptions can be questioned as probably being overly optimistic.

I could be wrong, and I hope I am, but somehow this plan reminds me way too much of the original golf course expansion plan, whose wildly optimistic assumptions have caused the city so much grief and expense ever since. But if I'm right, the district may not be able to afford to actually run the facility it wants to build, and it has already maxed out its taxing authority. If those revenue assumptions are too high we could easily have a major financial disaster on our hands.

I genuinely wish we'd had a better chance for the public to be able to analyze and comment on this document prior to the election. Playing it close to the vest just didn't help the district's credibility.

But I'm also a patient person who believes in giving people a chance. District officials have said they believe they can begin groundbreaking on Phase I of their plan by this time next year, and the facility will be open in 2010. Having been heavily involved in the somewhat simpler task of renovating the library a couple years ago, I think that also may be a little optimistic. Not completely impossible, but I think that timeline would be cutting it very, very tight.

Still, it seems reasonable to see if the district can meet the promises it has made. As government operations go, one year isn't such a long time.

But if, a year from now, walls aren't going up, I think the district is going to have a lot of explaining to do and a complete re-evaluation of its purpose, maybe even its very existence, would be justifiably in order.

The district created the demand and expectations for this project, and its vision was apparently affirmed in this election, but the time is rapidly approaching to fish or cut bait.


Comments
Showing comments in chronological order
[Show most recent comments first]

I beg to differ with you on a portion of this subject. The WECRD has been gives second chances for going on 8 years. Now our sentence is looking like it's going to be 8-10 with no chance of parole. Their ability to run "under the radar" for so long is the only reason they're still around. This fiefdom called a district has done nothing but overpay for a piece of land, hide the Op plan from the public before an election, and hold tightly to a money-pit of a dream house that's set to lose hundreds of thousands of dollars a year -- IF they can get people to spring for the $400 a year on top of the amount their being taxed. How and why the election went the way did makes no sense to me. But keeping that Op plan from the public helped hide the truth long enough for people to be fooled a bit longer. Honestly after all this time, I'd sooner dissolve the "district" than give one more penny to fuel this delusionary effort at providing the community "what it wants." In its current form, I believe this plan will provide nothing of any value for the community, likely just the opposite. I think it will be a huge drain on financial resources we can't afford to throw away. Optimistically $200,000 a year in losses!?! HA! That's ridiculous! The entire tax base including home owners and businesses, again optimistically, are to support 500 families membership to the facility while it loses money hand-over-fist. That's not progress to me. As-is this plan could work, just not here. To work a vast majority, something over 75%, of the community would have to have the financial resources to spend $1000 a year on a membership, as well as have the notion to do so. Then tossing out $400-500 (because, yes membership will very likely go up along with the taxes just to keep the doors open) a year to take advantage of what base services membership would afford them would be acceptable. Unfortunately, we don't have that base in our community. That's a big reason I think this plan in unrealistic.

-- Posted by VicVega on Wed, Nov 19, 2008, at 2:32 PM

I don't know many families that would be able OR willing to pay $400 per year for such a facility. The facility, as planned, isn't even what the majority of the community wants or needs - it isn't useful. The whole thing is a big messy joke.

-- Posted by I(heart)myboys on Wed, Nov 19, 2008, at 5:50 PM

I read that report in the BBlog before the election. From OM, if I remember correctly.

-- Posted by senior lady on Wed, Nov 19, 2008, at 8:54 PM

In my opinion, the WECRD withheld the report until after the election since they knew it showed the flaws in the statements they had been spewing. Now if it is actually built and fails, as we all know it will, they can blame the public for not being willing to fully utilize their services.

I say dissolve the district and find a better use for the money than just throwing it away in the manner the WECRD proposes.

-- Posted by Old guy on Wed, Nov 19, 2008, at 9:06 PM

I am with you, Old Guy

-- Posted by justmeagain on Wed, Nov 19, 2008, at 9:49 PM

I agree with you too, Old guy...something along the lines of a youth center for the KIDS of this town. A place for families to have fun. A skating rink, go-kart arena, or even an arcade!

In my opinion, this town has enough gyms and workout places. There are two pools available, granted, one is on the base, but I'll lay money down that almost everyone in this town knows at least ONE person who has base privileges that can take you to the pool/gym a couple of times a month? What the heck, what do you have to lose by asking?

Hold a contest for ideas from the children of this community and ASK THEM what they want in this town! I'll bet their ideas are great! Give them a chance.

-- Posted by flyonthewall on Wed, Nov 19, 2008, at 11:47 PM

Or how about just renovating and expanding the pool we already have? Somebody on the BB mentioned putting a cover over the existing pool? That pool is so little now, there's no swimming in it! STANDING is about all you can do in it during peak hours. And whatever happened to that skate park we were supposed to have? Oh wait a minute...yea, it's there. ARE YOU JOKING?? I love this town but the lack of recreation it has to support the youth of Mountain Home is SHAMEFUL!!!!!!

ok, I'm done now.

-- Posted by flyonthewall on Wed, Nov 19, 2008, at 11:52 PM

Would have--could have---should have but did not. Now look at the mess this is and nobody knew about it!

WECRD meeting next Weds. at 7:00 at the WECRD office...although they claim that they may re-schedile the meeting now since it is the day before a holiday. When they plan to tell people...who knows.

-- Posted by OpinionMissy on Thu, Nov 20, 2008, at 4:09 PM

Here is what Ms. Marsh had to say in a letter this week in the paper:

"All worthy efforts take time. All structures take capital. The time and the capital are converging and the WECRD is positioned to take advantage of lower construction costs. I look forward to working closely with the city, the county and with you as we move ahead. "

How much more time do you need to finally turn over some dirt and provide the community what you have promised them? And all we hear about is how construction costs are rising each day, where may I ask are you going to find lower construction costs than today's current ones?

How about some true answers Ms. Marsh? The lack of them is one of the reasons you did not get my vote.

-- Posted by Old guy on Thu, Nov 20, 2008, at 9:49 PM

There are many other causes in which the WECRD can invest those funds. There is nothing that states they are to only build a recreation center with the funds. Instead of the insane idea of charging membership fees on top of taxes, the district can invest gathered funds in the updating and maintenance of the local tennis courts and the completing of the "brown belt." Both can be recreationally used for free by families. Or how about forming grants opportunities? For example, there is a group, trying to establish a local youth center that could definitely use a portion of those funds...

I'm not sure what a "building" would add to this community. We already have a wonderful Recreation Program through the city where kids can do about anything recreational...to include swimming. If there are individuals that need to use a lap pool, I don't see why the Rec. District cannot work something out with the air base (perhaps on certain days and hours of the week, our local transit can take a "registered" group out to use the pool facility?) There are plenty of gyms in town for adults, of all ages to utilize, that already cost much less than what is proposed though the WECRD plan. The need for a "bricks and mortar" facility is simply not there.

The current WECRD Board and volunteers need to remove their blinders and stop looking straight ahead, and look at the big picture. I know the WECRD Board is currently going off the last census of the tax-payers wants, but too much has changed in the past decade.

It is ok to step back, re-evaluate and perhaps refocus. The tax payers would greatly appreciate it if the WECRD would just take a breath, pause and listen to the public.

-- Posted by mhgirl on Fri, Nov 21, 2008, at 2:02 PM

I agree with greenjean's final two paragraphs especially.

I attended the WECRD meeting this evening because I wanted to really see what was happening. I was not favorably impressed. I don't feel they wish to represent the community, just still charge ahead with whatever they want.

I overheard one woman say, "Where were all these people before now?" or words to that effect. Not wanting to make a scene because it steamed me, I didn't answer her. But I will now. The reason I, for one, hadn't attended before was because I trusted the board to make the right decisions. Boy, was I wrong to do that. They may be nice people, except for Ms Marsh who seemed stiff and cold, but that doesn't make up for the fact that their plans are out of step with what many in the community really, deep down, want and need. I don't think the board feels it needs to consider all the people who didn't vote for Marsh. We are just nothing.

When asked if this board would consider expanding to five members, Marsh responded that they hadn't considered it. What did they think when many folks seem to want that, to make it a more democratic board? Another example of ignoring the public so, I guess, that Ms Marsh can run things her way.

Doug Belt's resignation was read tonight; it was very kindly worded. A Ms Borgelthaus was appointed to replace him. Maybe she will consider the public more.

There may be another public meeting with the city council but she doesn't want any member of the public to be able to speak, just observe. She doesn't want it to "turn into a polical" thing. Well, she and the board are in the political arena, and so is the WECRD, when you go about taxing people so much.

By the way, I don't mind signing in anywhere I wish to speak, but just to enter? We all had to do that. Why? I was there to observe, not being yet up enough on all the facts to be able to speak tonight. I certainly didn't feel comfortable just asking questions, either. I had hoped to find answers to some of my questions on their website, but that is not up to date and does not show their operational budget. She said tonight that they finalize their budgets in August.

By the way, the cost of their recent election will come to perhaps $14K. I'm pretty sure that it does not include Ms Marsh's costs to run -- even I wouldn't think that of her, albeit it was a lavish campaign in my opinion -- so I'm just curious: ballots, legal notices and non-campaign advertizing, and some minimum-wage helpers came to $14K?

I am glad that some folks asked questions, though. (And had it recorded, too!)

I feel the newspaper has been fair with the WECRD, but they are going to ask their attorney to rebut recent articles. They didn't say what it was that upset them, except to mention "facts." An editor's opinion, just like mine or anyone else's, is just that: opinion.

One lady on the board didn't seem well enough to be there and didn't say much. Another was just appointed tonight and looked like a deer in the headlights. And then there was Ms Marsh doing most of the talking.

The secretary seems nice and friendly, however. She was the only pleasant thing about tonight's meeting.

-- Posted by senior lady on Wed, Nov 26, 2008, at 10:29 PM


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