The Rolla City Council spent two hours Monday night thinking aloud about what to do with The Centre and the parks.
No decision was made, but they mulled over these options for what to do when the half-cent recreation center tax ends on Dec. 31 of this year:
• Eighth-cent sales tax to cover operating support of The Centre with no funding for improvements or upgrades to the parks.
• Quarter-cent sales tax dropping to an eighth-cent after a number of years, perhaps five to seven, to cover The Centre’s operating costs and specific upgrades for the parks.
• Quarter-cent to cover operating support of The Centre and long-term-investment in parks and facilities.
No matter which option is selected by the council, Rolla voters will have to approve it.
Discussion of the future of The Centre and the parks opened with City Administrator John Butz explaining that since the beginning of the economic stagnation in 2007, the city’s sales tax revenue has come to a standstill.
There has been a great deal of cost-cutting, he said, including the elimination of four staff positions in the parks and recreation departments, which were merged into a single parks and recreation department under the direction of Scott Caron.
The parks department had been receiving a $450,000 subsidy from the general fund; with the cost-cutting, the merger and the elimination of the staff positions, that amount will be about $350,000 this year, and $200,000-$250,000 next fiscal year.
There have been no new playgrounds built since 2004; that was done with donated equipment. No new playground equipment has been purchased since 1996, Butz said. None of the city’s playground equipment is compliant with the Americans With Disabilities Act.
The Centre’s funding is by the sales tax, which “sunsets” on Dec. 31, as agreed to by the voters 15 years ago. By that date, The Centre will have built up a reserve of $3.5 million, perhaps as much as $4 million, that the council has designated to be saved and used for major repairs or replacement of equipment or the building. It is held in an account referred to as the “depreciation account.”
Parks and Recreation Director Caron then gave a “walk through the park system.” He said of the 326.18 acres of total parkland, 248 acres are developed. The department is responsible for 28 parking lots, seven picnic shelters, four restrooms, nine ballfields, six tennis courts, 15 basketball courts, 15 playgrounds, 8.75 miles of exercise trails, seven football or soccer fields, two volleyball courts, two lakes or ponds, two recreation centers, one outdoor pool and the Bandshell.
Caron reviewed all of the park facilities, describing the condition of each one. One park, Penny Park, located at Lester Drive and Edith Street, was given to the city in the platting of the Williams Subdivision in 1971. It’s a 2/100ths of an acre park and is undeveloped. Likely, it will never be developed because it is a sinkhole. Unfortunately, it was given in perpetuity so it cannot be sold. Fortunately, it only costs $140 a year to maintain; maintenance involves a parks staff member driving out and inspecting it twice a year.
Page 2 of 3 - There are several parks that could be sold. Caron said Countryaire Park has three potential residential lots, Anne’s Acres has possibly one lot but it could be in a floodplain. Deer Crossing has one potential residential lot. Ridgeview Park has two potential lots; Barnitz Park has three potential lots.
In addition, the city has platted lots that it has obtained for various reasons and which the parks department has been given charge of: One lot is on Elliot Drive, one is on Heller Drive and two are on Cooper Street.
Caron recommended Deer Crossing Park and the four platted lots be considered for sale. Consensus of the council was that he should talk to a Realtor and get an idea for what those properties could bring to the city in money that could be “redeployed” to the parks and recreation department.
Caron presented a five-year look at revenues and expenses. In fiscal year 2007-2008, total revenue was $337,637 and expenses were $713,029.
The highest revenue figures were $350,595 in fiscal year 2010-2011 and total expenses of $738,225.
Last fiscal year, the revenue was $322,034 and expenses were $686,167.
The budget for the current year calls for $335,400 in revenue and $662,425 in expenses.
“We’ve cut a lot,” Caron said. “It’s hard to cut any more.”
Councilman Louis Magdits asked what Obamacare will do to personnel costs. Caron said he believed the city has taken appropriate action so the “12-month lookbacks” at the level of part-time workers won’t be a problem.
Mayor Bill Jenks described a recent visit to the Cowan Center in Lebanon, which not only includes what The Centre has but also has a performing arts center like Leach Theatre.
Lebanon operates the Cowan Center with a deficit, and that is accepted by the residents.
Councilman Magdits quickly pointed out that Rolla voters did not vote for that kind of a deal.
Rolla voters agreed to pay for construction of the building, but “sunsetted” the tax after the bonds would be paid, expecting the city to operate the facility with a 100 percent recapture of expenses from fees and rentals.
“So we have what we have,” Magdits said. “The majority did not want to pay for something they were not going to use.”
Councilman Bahr, noting his history in retail, said, “At the end of the day, you’re going to have to find more customers.”
Caron noted that a big problem is The Centre lost customers to competition. There was the loss of hundreds of Missouri University of Science and Technology students when the university built a gym and fitness center for the students to use.
Page 3 of 3 - Also, he said, Anytime Fitness, a 24/7 fitness center, took some of The Centre members.
Steering the discussion away from The Centre, Caron said, “We’re still neglecting our parks system as a whole.”
Although “none of us want to pay any more taxes,” he said, there are numerous benefits to having an excellent parks and recreation system. Caron told of a New York man who moved to Rolla because of the parks and The Centre.
There was more discussion about The Centre’s origins and its inability to stand on its own.
Magdits said part of the problem was that Phelps County Regional Medical Center changed administration and pulled out of its partnership with the city on The Centre as a place to promote health and wellness.
Councilman Don Morris said it might be time to tell voters “We were wrong; it doesn’t work,” and ask for a continuation of the sales tax. He said voters should be educated about the changes in the economy, the changes in competition with The Centre and the pullout of PCRMC as a partner.
Councilman Kelly Long stressed the benefit of The Centre. He is human resources director for a company. Long said he will take an executive who is a potential hire to Alex’s Pizza and The Centre.
An eighth-cent sales tax will generate $490,000 for The Centre. That’s about what The Centre needs. The total revenues in fiscal year 2007-08 were $1,192,364.02 while the expenses were $1,459,233.37. Last fiscal year, the revenues were $1,013,456.6 and the expenses were $1,422,949.84.
Adopting an eighth-cent tax would cover The Centre’s needs, but not the parks. There would still need to be a general fund subsidy.
Butz suggested the quarter-cent tax with an eighth-cent dropping off after a few years.
Whatever the council does it needs to have “a laser focus,” Magdits said, unlike the last time when the council allowed the addition of a senior citizens tax to ride along with a parks and recreation tax.
Councilman Greg Sawyer agreed that the focus should be sharp and also said the council, when it approaches the voters again, needs to be willing to fight back against tax opponents. Moreover, he said the council must speak with one voice, unlike last time when several councilmen declined to support the sales tax question due to its lack of focus.