The proposed Ben Geren Aquatics Center has encountered yet another delay.
Members of the Sebastian County Quorum Court voted Monday night (March 19) to table a vote on three aquatic center-related items:
• A third reading of the appropriations ordinance funding construction of the facility at nearly about $4 million;
• Amending the construction funding to include an additional $800,000 in funding for more amenities at the facility; and
• Amending the interlocal agreement with the city of Fort Smith, providing a loan of approximately $400,000 to fund the city's half of the amenities upgrade.
When discussing why the Court needed to table the measures, Justice of the Peace Shawn Looper said the city of Fort Smith may not be the government body in need of a loan to fund additional amenities at the water park, referring to deficit cashflow projections recently reported by The City Wire.
"We might need to be asking them for a loan instead of them asking us for a loan," he said. "I mean, you have some pretty negative numbers as you look at the next couple years of cashflow without building a water park and without having the loss."
In discussing the bleak outlook of the county's finances, Looper pointed to the October 2015 projected county general fund cashflow deficit of $2.424 million.
Looper also mentioned the county-owned golf course at Ben Geren, which he said had seen revenue decline between 35% and 40% during the first two months of this year.
Due to the losses at the golf course, along with projected budget shortfalls in coming years, he said it was wise for the Quorum Court to delay a vote on the aquatics facility in order to perform a thorough review of the county's financial situation.
"These are important things we need to look at. I don't think we just need to, you know, ignore them, and you have put a lot of work into them and your staff has put a lot of work into them," Looper said of the cashflow projections put together by County Judge David Hudson's office.
JP Linda Murry, a former comptroller and treasurer for the county, painted the Court a dire financial picture for the county, as well.
According to Murry, the county is in financial trouble that herself and other JPs had not been made aware of by Hudson's office when the project was first proposed more than a year and a half ago.
"We did not know what the financial situation of the county was when all of this was coming into play. That was not the fault of the Quorum Court. We did not know," she said emphatically.
When contacted for response to the Court's move to table votes on the project Monday night, Fort Smith city administrator Ray Gosack said the delay could jeopardize the proposed Memorial Day 2014 opening of the facility.
"But yes, it is encouraging that they're still interested in the project and expanding the project. I'm encouraged that they're still talking about it and they're looking for a way to make it work," he said.
Following the meeting, Hudson spoke to members of the media and addressed the concerns of the Court.
"That will be our obligation to make sure that we continue to work due diligence on the budget," he said.
Regarding the Court being in the dark about the county's financial situation, Hudson said his office was going to make every attempt to keep JPs in the loop.
"We work as hard as we can to put as much information out as we can and the financial information that has been provided shows what it shows and could we do a better job? We could always do a better job. I will apply that to myself and the office and the staff. We'll work to make sure we communicate as effectively as we can."
In an attempt to improve communication between Hudson's office and Court, JP Phil Hicks proposed and the Court adopted a motion to hold meetings, similar to study sessions held by the Fort Smith Board of Directors, one week prior to the Court's regularly scheduled April and May meetings.
In other business, the Quorum Court:
• Tabled a vote on an ordinance regulating citizen-owned animals within the boundaries of county parks;
• Tabled an appropriation ordinance re-allocating various county funds; and
• Approved an emergency ordinance establishing a direct deposit system for the county.