As the water park morphed into a more expensive proposition (from $7.5 to $11.2), I think its important to look at the original ballot to best pinpoint the intent of the city and the people.
The Aquatic Center Improvement Bonds read as follows: An issue of bonds of the City of Fort Smith in the maximum amount of $4,260,000 to finance a portion of the costs of an aquatic center consisting of swimming and other recreational facilities and any parking, equipment, furnishings and utility improvements therefor, and in order to pay the bonds, the levy and pledge of a local sales and use tax at the rate of 0.75% within the City.
The Sales and Use Tax for Fire Department and Parks and Recreation Purposes read: Adoption of a one-fourth of one percent (0.25%) local sales and use tax within the City of Fort Smith, Arkansas for a period of ten (10) years, commencing October 1, 2012, the net collections of which after deduction of the administrative charges of the State of Arkansas and required rebates (“Net Collections”), to be used by the City as follows: 50% of the Net Collections for park and recreation purposes and 50% of the Net Collections for fire department purposes.
Understanding there was to be a 50/50 split, the people voted to allocate $4.26M to this project and no more. It would be through bonds and $4.26M was the maximum the people would be asked to give. It passed and a spending limit was set .
But the quoted price was actually about the presented illustration and the idea of creating a destination grander than anything within driving distance. We now understand the picture costs $11.2M, and Fort Smith must pull out another $1.34M or more. If its about the "intent of the voters" than it is about the literal read of the ballot wording, than the voter's intent means not only should the City buy in bigger, but that its new share of the build should be no more than $5.6M. The 50/50 split was also part of the intent. The City cannot go to $5.6M without a similar County commitment.
In the meantime, while focus has remained on what it will cost to build the aquatic park, no time has been spent discussing the cost of its operation and maintenance. From the original report on the project from The City Wire, we have this quote: "A second concept could cost about $7.5 million, with a projected operating budget of $822,772 and projected revenue of $709,300, leaving an expected annual operating loss of $113,472. This proposal will serve 1,500, and is based on the county and city partnering on construction and operation."
No details were provided concerning operating days or admission price information, so the projected revenues cannot be fully explored. Likewise, without detail, neither can its costs. But one thing is clear, this is the only accounting of operating costs presented, as best as I can tell, and it was first suggested back in January 2010 from a 66-page report (most likely written in 2009). Keep in mind, this is the same report that originally priced the park at $7.5M.
Does it not stand to reason that if the construction costs have risen so dramatically, that the operating costs have as well? But one thing is clear, the City expects its share of the operating loss to be limited to about $56,000. From The City Wire in February of this year, “Mike Alsup, parks and recreation director for the city of Fort Smith, said the center was never intended to be a money-making proposition.'It was always assumed that it would not break even,' he said. To cover continued maintenance, Alsup said the city would use sales tax revenue to pay its share. 'We have a quarter-cent sales and use tax (that can help fund operations),' Alsup said."
Indeed, as pointed out in a TCW Editorial, the intended uses of that tax were published as follows:— 0.25% of the of 1% sales tax will support Fire and Parks Department operations, to include:
• Operating cost of Fire Station 11 (Chaffee Crossing);
• Construction of a fire training center;
• Firefighter equipment and training;
• A sinking fund to help pay for future fire equipment purchases;
• Construction of two ballfields at Ben Geren Park to replace those removed when the National Cemetery was expanded;
• Aquatics facility operations;
• Improvements in facilities and maintenance at Creekmore Park, Fort Smith Park, Tilles Park and Wilson Park;
• Construction of a softball tournament-quality sports complex at Chaffee Crossing; and,
• Construction of soccer fields and park facilities along Riverfront Drive.
The Parks Commission must be better prepared to handle a much larger deficit. Instead, it has opted to allocate $456,000 of these sales tax funds for the aquatic parks’ capital needs, which means diverting that money from the original intended purposes. If anything, the Parks Commission should be asking for a cost of operations refresh and start putting sales tax revenues in a reserve fund to cover what will more than likely be much more than $56,000 in operating losses.
With last night's parks commission vote, we are now to believe it is more about literal interpretation of the ballot initiative, and not its intended purposes, as described above. If you still have faith in the $56,000 number, than the Commission just diverted eight years of operating expense shortfall to the building fund. Since it still has to fund the shortfall, it truly voted to divert the money from all the other projects.
Many who approved the aquatic park bonds and the fire/parks sales tax had no intention of ever going to the aquatics center. They voted for both because they wanted both to happen and expect both to happen within certain parameters. They don't expect the .025% sales tax money to be spent on the aquatic park's construction -- only bond money for that, but they do expect with those funds two Ben Geren ballfields, the aquatic park operations shortfall, improvements and better maintenance at four city parks (including the flagship Creekmore Park), a tournament-quality softball complex, and soccer fields with parking at the Riverfront. These funds, if not approved by the voters, expire 10/2022, covering only 8 years of the operating shortfall. What then?
If the intent of the voters compel us to approve more funding to build it; than the intent of the voters should equally be respected when it comes to 0.025% sales tax.
With the $456,000 removed, can the parks department still deliver on what was intended when passing the sales tax? I have my doubts. Will those who insist on the $11.2M structure be kind when the aquatic operating losses are posted and other parks decline as a consequence of diverted funds, I doubt that, too. I want the best aquatic park possible, but I like to swim with my eyes open.