Rec district should have made operations plan availablePosted 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.
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