No longer are the Fort Smith Board of Directors and the Sebastian County Quorum Court wrangling over whether or not to add an additional $800,000 to the $8 million budget for the Ben Geren Aquatics Center.
Instead, both bodies approved an amended interlocal agreement in separate meetings Tuesday (Dec. 17), setting the project budget at $10.9 million, which would allow the project to include many of the amenities Fort Smith voters thought they would see in a project when they voted to approve a sales tax to fund the city's half of the construction in May 2012.
But spending the additional funds did not come without a fight at the city Board meeting, which took place an hour prior to the meeting of the Quorum Court.
In order to pay for the city's additional $1.5 million now obligated to the budget, the money will be taken from the Parks and Recreation Department's Five Year Capital Improvement Plan. But in order to take from CIP, projects originally slated for funding during fiscal years 2014 and 2015 have been shuffled around, including the River Valley Sports Complex, a project spearheaded by Election Commission Chairman Lee Webb and State Sen. Jake Files, R-Fort Smith.
An ordinance passed by the Board on June 5, 2012, requires that money be set aside for the project from the sales tax in different amounts at different times. From June 2013 to December 2013, the ordinance spells out $750,000 in funding that would have been set aside for the project, money that City Administrator Ray Gosack said would now be used for the aquatics center instead.
"It would be used for the aquatics center and then we would have to get re-appropriated for the ball field project later on," he said, adding that the Board would have to amend the ordinance at a later date in order for the funding to officially be taken away. "It would have to come separately (from the vote tonight)."
Webb addressed the Board, asking that it look at other ways to draw funding from the CIP in order to build the aquatics center without having to take from funds already obligated to the sports complex, to be built at Chaffee Crossing.
"I know the position you're put in. I've been there myself. I hope there's a way to figure out (how) to get around this,” Webb said in addressing the Board.
Even though the sports complex, which is proposed to now not be built until 2018, is being sidelined for the time being, Gosack said a previous agreement with the U.S. Army National Guard would still move forward. The Army, through a grant, would clear the land for the ballfields at Chaffee Crossing in Aug. 2014. After their work is complete, Gosack said the city would still spend about $350,000 already set aside for the project to "stabilize" the site and carve out drainage, preparing the site to sit for years until funding comes available to construct the ball fields.
WAVE POOL ADDITION
Even though the sports complex was an issue raised by Webb, the Board looked at other factors in their decision to approve the additional funding.
Director Mike Lorenz presented the Board with polling done by his daughters, who attend Northside High School and Trinity Junior High, which showed water slides and a wave pool as an interest among more than 600 students he said were polled at both schools.
He said it was clear to him that in order to draw patrons to the facility, it would need to be built closer to the concept presented to the Board in March of this year, including a longer lazy river, slides and other amenities, adding that "we need to build something we can be proud of."
Director Keith Lau echoed those sentiments, adding that the city needed to "be the best or go home."
Parks and Recreation Director Mike Alsup said building the larger facility and possibly including a wave pool would be the primary driver of customer traffic, which would lead to a lower chance of both the city and county having to subsidize the facility's costs each year. He came to the conclusion after speaking to individuals at municipal water parks across the region.
"The likelihood to break even is greater with a wave pool being part of the project," he said, adding that the "wave pool is the draw."
He also said he had spoken with the project designers and had been assured that the wave pool could replace the diving well and still have the entire aquatics center project come in under the new $10.9 million budget.
‘PROMISES OF FUTURE NUMBERS’
The final vote for the $10.9 funding concept passed the Board on a 4-3 vote, with Directors Pam Weber, Philip Merry and George Catsavis voting against the project.
Both Merry and Weber expressed concern that not enough was known about the costs of the project, with the $10.9 million figure having just been made public on Friday (Dec. 13).
"We've seen so many numbers and we've relied on so many for numbers, but we still don't know if $10.9 million would cover the original plan or cover a wave pool. We don't know that," Merry said.
Weber went so far as to suggest the possibility of going back to the voters and asking for an extension of the current bonds in order to not sacrifice funding for the sports complex or any other facility. It was an idea that gained no traction.
"I want to remind all of you when we do this vote - we relied on numbers that did not come to fruition," she said. "And our Board is not in the business of micromanaging. But I wish this was one time I had stepped forward and micromanaged. Because going from $8.8 million to $11 million on the same plan has not left me with a good taste in my mouth or left me feeling comfortable with promises of future numbers."
QUORUM COURT ACTION
Following the action of the Board, the Quorum Court approved the additional funding of their portion of the project, with Judge David Hudson explaining that short-term loans could be issued against future sales tax revenues the county will collect that is dedicated to parks capital improvements.
When asked by Justice of the Peace Linda Murry what the cost of such short-term financing would be, he suggested using a local financial institution to structure the loans with interest rates he did not expect being above 2%.
Justice of the Peace John Spradlin spoke out against the additional funding, explaining that designer Larkin Aquatics had already been off in their estimates by 24.6% from the original concept to the most recent cost estimate.
"We don't have a firm number. This is really scary and with revenues down…with revenues down and we can't get a firm number out of these guys. ... This is very dangerous here and I think if we're not careful…we're already stretched and revenues are down. The projections don't look good. We can't get a firm number. We're flying blind and now we're going to say, 'OK. Let's do this.'"
Not having the votes to defeat the cost increase, the amendment moved forward, with Justice of the Peace Danny Aldridge, a proponent of the aquatic center, declaring Tuesday as a great day for Fort Smith and Sebastian County.
"You've got governments working together to get the citizens what they want. We're serving them and using their tax dollars the best way we can. I think it will be great for everybody. I think it will be a boom for the economy."
And even though the city spent nearly 30 minutes discussing a possible wave pool, with Alsup declaring he was assured by the project designer that it could come in under budget, Hudson said he was unaware that estimates related to a wave pool were included in the project to replace the dive well.
"I don't know anything about that, so I can't comment on that. I know that Mike Alsup has talked to some other water park operators and that their recommendation to them is you're better served participant-wise, and connected to that cash flow-wise, with a wave pool than you would be with a dive well."
Following the meeting, Spradlin said he feared the increased funding and the county's plan to eventually take out loans at a later time against future sales tax revenues would put the county in a financial bind, resulting in tax increases to make up the deficits. And he placed the blame squarely on Aldridge's desire to see a larger park built.
"It's a sad day for taxpayers. And I blame Danny Aldridge."
Hudson and Gosack have said a joint meeting of both the city and county legislative bodies will be held in coming weeks to finalize the design of the project, though a firm date has not yet been set.