The last of three ward meetings conducted in Rolla neighborhoods will be held from 5:30-7 p.m. today at at the Buehler Park pavilion.
If the weather causes problems for an outdoor meeting, the session will be held in the Rolla Chamber of Commerce office.
This meeting will reach out to residents of Wards 5 and 6, although any Rolla area resident is free to attend it. Last week, meetings were held Monday for Wards 1 and 2 and Tuesday for Wards 3 and 4.
Purpose of these meetings is to take the city's message that a parks and recreation tax is necessary to continue operation of The Centre and SplashZone and to maintain and add equipment in the parks. City officials are also listening to residents and taking written comments; all of that will be shared at the Oct. 15 wrap-up meeting at The Centre.
The current recreation tax, passed in 1998 to pay off construction bonds for The Centre and SplashZone, "sunsets" at the end of this year. What has been talked about, although not formally proposed, is a quarter-cent sales tax with half of that being used to subsidize Centre/SplashZone operation and the other half being used for parks.
That half for parks would be split evenly between operation/maintenance and capital improvements. The capital improvements share, one-sixteenth of a cent, would have a time limit of, perhaps, 10 years. It would either "sunset" or be extended for a new round of capital improvements if voters would approve.
At both meetings last week, Parks and Recreation Director Scott Caron opened with an announcement that handouts were available. These documents explained in text, line items and graphically the city's case for a parks and recreation sales tax, that likely would be presented to voters in April 2014.
At both meetings, Caron and City Administrator John Butz fielded questions and responded to comments. Council members and Mayor Bill Jenks III also attended to hear what voters had to say.
And opponents of the tax to subsidize operation of The Centre gave the city officials an earful, pointing out repeatedly that in 1998, the city's position was that the municipal recreation center would not compete with private enterprise and it would stand alone as a public enterprise, raising enough money through memberships and fees to operate without a subsidy.
But, on the other hand, supporters of the tax told the opponents to stop living in the past. Those supporters assured the city officials that they believe The Centre adds much value to their lives and to the community and is worth being subsidized by a sales tax.
At the Monday night meeting held at Ber Juan Park pavilion, with a view of both SplashZone and The Centre, Peggy Chirban, owner of Vessell's Fitness Center, spoke about how the subsidy allows The Centre to offer a price competitive with her free-enterprise center while offering far more services and amenities than she is able to offer.
Page 2 of 5 - "They're not paying a fair market price," Chirban said of the customers who pay about what her customers pay but also have access to the indoor pool, indoor basketball courts, indoor walking track.
Moreover, Chirban said, a significant number of The Centre customers receive membership discounts large enough that they pay much less than her customers pay. Because of that, she has lost customers
For the city-owned business to use tax money to be able to charge less, in some cases discounting the prices to much less, than what she charges in the private sector is unfair, Chirban said.
An opposing viewpoint was heard Tuesday night in Green Acres Park pavilion from Greg Harris.
"I see it as a community asset," said Harris. who added that he sees The Centre as similar to other assets that certain individuals and groups in the community do not use, but which are important to offer anyway.
Pointing to playground equipment, Harris said, "I'll never play on that," but he doesn't begrudge paying for it because it adds to the quality of life in Rolla.
Moreover, Harris said, The Centre offers more to enhance the quality of life than just fitness and recreation.
"If I were not here tonight, I would be at The Centre listening to Dr. Greg Story," said Harris, referring to the Missouri S&T physics professor who gave a talk about the nature of light that evening.
At the meeting
Present at the Monday night meeting last week were Ward 1 Councilman Monty Jordan and Councilwoman Rhonda Sue Myers, Ward 2 Councilmen Greg Sawyer and Steven Leonard, Ward 3 Councilwoman Sue Eudaly and Ward 6 Councilman Walt Bowe.
Caron, recreation manager Kristy Rich and parks superintendent Stan Bush attended from the parks and recreation department.
Mayor Bill Jenks III and City Administrator John Butz attended from the city administration.
Councilman Sawyer encouraged all present to "take a good hard look at it and then vote for it."
Councilman Leonard noted that he voted 15 years ago for the first time after his 18th birthday.
"I actually voted no," he acknowledged, "but, boy, am I sure glad we've got it." Although he also acknowledged not being a member — "I'm not that health-conscious," he said—he said The Centre offers much for the community, and because of that, he will support the tax.
Councilwoman Myers, who is leaving the council because she has moved from Ward 1, said, "I second what Steve said."
Although much of the discussion was about The Centre, Caron explained that the parks and recreation system is far more than just The Centre. He described it as "comprehensive," noting that it includes the walking trails, detention ponds, playgrounds, ballfields and picnic areas.
Page 3 of 5 - "For the last nine years, there has been no capital investment in the parks," Caron said, with the exception of the trails, which were paid by grants. "We are falling behind," he said. "We want you to help us."
Caron said the sales tax will stabilize funding for the parks and recreation facilities. Parks have received $450,000 from the general fund each year. If voters approve the sales tax, that general fund transfer will have to continue, but at a greatly reduced amount, "more like $150,000," Caron said.
The sales tax will allow the rec center to continue to operate, and the tax will allow capital expenditures to begin on the parks.
"Every playground has equipment that needs to be replaced," Caron said. "And parking lots need to be improved."
Former Ward 1 Councilman William Lindgren asked what would happen if the tax fails.
"The parks will deteriorate," he said. "We'll have less mowing."
In fact, he said, "selling parks, that may be an option."
Alfred Chapman, a county resident and building contractor, asked, "Why don't you just raise the rates on your clients (at The Centre)?"
Caron said, "It's funny. I hear on the one hand, 'You have to raise rates,' Then I hear, "It's too expensive, I can't afford it.'"
Chapman said, "It was promised it would be break-even; now it's going to be a tax burden."
Caron, who was not here in 1998, said, "there's nothing I can do about 15 years ago."
Judy Light, retired director of GRACE, an organization to help people in need, said, the city is more in need of jobs, not recreation. Only technical jobs are sought in Rolla, she said, "but you're not really doing anything for the little man."
Mayor Jenks disputed that, saying he has been to two company headquarters, trying to persuade them to build facilities in Rolla, but other cities win because they give away land and buildings to the privately owned corporations.
"It's very, very difficult," Jenks said. "It's intensely competitive."
Chirban, owner of Vessell's, said survival in the fitness and recreation business has become more competitive, and unfairly competitive. She said customers who pay $30 per month at her fitness center have left because they can pay $24 per month at The Centre, thanks to discounts.
"You have a $9 million facility," she said, noting that is far more than her privately owned rec center. "You need to be priced accordingly."
Caron said that if he raises the fees, membership drops.
Chirban said, "I understand. I play the same game."
Present at the Tuesday night meeting were Ward 3 Councilman Kelly Long and Councilwoman Sue Eudaly, Ward 4 Councilmen Don Morris and Lou Magdits.
Page 4 of 5 - Mayor Jenks, City Administrator Butz and Parks Director Scott Caron were back, along with recreation supervisor Rich. Rick Smith, guest services manager at The Centre, also was present.
Caron stressed that people will be paying a lower tax than they are paying now for The Centre if the tax question is placed on the ballot in April and approved by the voters.
Currently, The Centre's recreation sales tax a half-cent per $1 spent. That will go away Dec. 31, and there will be no sales tax for parks and recreation.
What's being talked about is a possible quarter-cent to be passed in April. That's half of what is being collect now, Caron noted. And after five or 10 years, depending on what the council decides, part of that tax would sunset.
Both Caron and Butz acknowledged, though, that it would be likely that the city would ask voters to reinstate that portion of the tax for capital improvements, at least for another 5- or 10-year period as more parks needs are prioritized.
Responding to questions, Caron said the quarter-cent sales tax would raise $450,000 per year. Half of that would go to The Centre and half of it would go to the parks.
In addition to that $225,000 that would go to the parks, to be divided evening between operations and capital improvements, the parks would receive $100,000-$200,000 in a transfer from the general fund.
In addition, the parks and recreation department would transfer $100,000 out of its fund to the administrative fund to pay for administrative services.
Councilman Magdits, who was involved heavily with the campaign to adopt the half-cent sales tax in 1998 and is a member and user of The Centre, noted that there have been many changes since 1998, making it more difficult to operate The Centre without a subsidy.
He said that $100,000 administrative transfer was not part of the figuring in 1998.
In addition, Missouri S&T (University of Missouri-Rolla in 1998) cost the city 400 paying customers when it built a recreation center for students.
Another private fitness center, Anytime Fitness, with a round-the-clock marketing plan, also took away customers.
"I just think we bit off more than we could chew," said a woman in the audience.
That same woman also suggested the city, by merging the parks and recreation departments, was working hard to save The Centre but cloaking that with an appeal to improve the parks.
"All of a sudden, parks are a big issue," she said. "But The Centre has always been a big issue."
Another woman spoke up to say that The Centre was the reason she and her husband moved to Rolla. They need the indoor pool for handicapped therapy. She also noted that as a former St. Louis County Parks employee, she knows that "parks don't pay for themselves. They're not revenue-generating property, but they help your property values grow."
Page 5 of 5 - Caron repeated again, "There's nothing we can do about 15 years ago."
Chirban said Tuesday night that she believes many people in the community would be willing to support the parks, knowing they are not money-makers, but are not willing to finance The Centre, which is a business in competition with other businesses.
She suggested that if the city really wanted to help the parks, it could ask voters for the eighth of a cent sales tax to be used for operations and capital improvements.
Caron said, "If we put them (capital improvements) in, we wouldn't be able to maintain them."
Membership fees at Vessell's include all sales taxes, and Chirban said that while she would be willing to pay the sales tax portion for the parks, "I don't' want to pay somebody else's fitness membership."
Mayor Jenks said Lebanon taxpayers have in their Cowan Center a facility that includes not only what The Centre includes but an indoor arena and performing arts center, too.
"And they're proud of that facility," he said. Rolla residents ought to be proud of The Centre, for "It's one of the biggest assets we have" and it helps attract businesses and industries.
Jenks said the discussions from 1998 are in the past and "we have to quit living in the past."
Someone asked what industries have been opened thanks to being attracted here by The Centre. Butz acknowledged that "We've lost industries." Both Briggs & Stratton and Can-Tex have closed.
Another person asked how many fitness centers have shut down since The Centre opened. None have. Anytime Fitness has opened since the city went into the fitness business with The Centre.
Dr. Bill Moorkamp, a local dentist who led the "grassroots" committee effort back in 1998, spoke about the health benefit of The Centre. He said 1.75 million check-ins were recorded at The Centre in the last 11 years. That shows the facility is being used by a lot of people to improve their health.
"More people are being more active," he said. "It's for the greater good of the community."