Fort Smith officials expressed disappointment Wednesday after Sebastian County Quorum Court members voted against $820,000 in additional funding for the Ben Geren Aquatic Center in exchange for the city of Fort Smith absorbing operating losses until it had repaid the county the $820,000 sum.
Fort Smith Director Keith Lau said he knew there was a risk of the court not approving funding after the proposal came about during last week's joint meeting of both bodies, but he didn't think court members would actually vote against frustrated members of the public who expressed a desire for additional amenities at the proposed facility.
"I thought that we had worked through a compromise to provide the citizens what was spelled out in the plans," Lau said.
Even though Lau thought a compromise had been reached between the city and county, District 5 Justice of the Peace John Spradlin expressed frustration that the city did not cough up money last week to pay half of the proposed additional funds even though he said the city sold voters on a better facility than what can be built on an $8 million budget.
"They sold the dream, they set the hook, (and) here we are," Spradlin said.
City Administrator Ray Gosack said nothing could be further from the truth. At last month's meeting, Gosack explained that the city was bound to the language of the sales tax proposal that appeared on the ballot last year. He expressed similar feelings again today (Feb. 20).
"The public expects us to deliver an aquatics center. What we presented to the public last year was an $8 million (plan)," Gosack said.
Gosack also explained that the planning for the aquatics park was primarily conducted by the county.
"The city was never involved in those designs and those cost estimates," he said.
Gosack also said that when he and Fort Smith Mayor Sandy Sanders explained the aquatics park plan prior to the vote, “we made it clear that the design was a conceptual design subject to change based on public input and final cost.”
Lau echoed those sentiments, explaining that the county presented city officials with the plans, including cost estimates, and if the project presented to them had been a higher price tag, the city would have been fine with asking for more money.
"We were selling what the county gave us. We were selling off the numbers that were given to us," Lau said. "We were relying on the information that we were given by the county. If we had known it was $5 million, we would have put $5 million on the bond issuance."
Regarding Spradlin, Lau had particularly harsh words for him.
"For (John) Spradlin to say that, knowing from (Ray) Gosack and Judge (David) Hudson that those costs and specifications came from the county, was out of line, I think," he said. "I don't think he had all of his facts straight because that information came from the county — the plans, specification and cost came from the county."
While much of last night's fight revolved around additional funds for the project, the original $8 million project itself was nearly dealt a fatal blow as it came up for second reading.
District 11 JP Linda Murry openly struggled on whether to vote "yes" on second reading the county's half of the aquatic center's construction cost. Her eventual "yes" vote brought the second reading to a final 7-6 vote, requiring a third and final meeting at the court's March meeting.
Should one JP change his or her vote, the project will fail to secure the county's half of the funding, essentially killing the proposal.
But Lau said whatever hangups members of the Quorum Court may have regarding the project, it should approve the original project on its third reading so county and city residents will have the aquatic center that had been promised to them.
"We just need to go on through. They (the quorum court) voted for it," he said. "We just need to move on and get it done."