City officials hosted their third and final ward meeting at Buehler Park Monday night to talk to voters about a possible parks and recreation sales tax.

City officials hosted their third and final ward meeting at Buehler Park Monday night to talk to voters about a possible parks and recreation sales tax.
City Administrator John Butz moderated the meeting for Wards 5 and 6 in the park pavilion next to Kingshighway traffic. Parks and Recreation Director Scott Caron was ill and could not attend.
Mayor Bill Jenks III, Ward 5 Councilmen J.D. Williams and Brian Woolley, Ward 6 Councilman Walt Bowe, and Ward 3 Councilman Kelly Long attended. Staff members present were Kristy Rich, recreation manager, and Mitch Lewis, aquatics manager.
Butz explained the comments from the public would be included in a report for the wrap-up meeting Oct. 15 at The Centre.
Later, “probably in November,” Butz said, the council will consider an ordinance for a ballot issue. To be on the April ballot, that language will have to be submitted to the county clerk shortly after the first of the year.
A brief review of the events that led up to the meeting was presented by the city administrator.
He said the economy stagnated in Rolla six or seven years ago, and the sales tax proceeds “flat-lined.”
“We’ve seen virtually no growth in the sales tax,” he said.
Because of that, there has not been enough money for needed maintenance in the parks. Mowing schedules have been adjusted, and parking lots that were chipped-and-sealed have become “virtually gravel” as maintenance has been deferred. In addition, the SplashZone, which has every year brought in sufficient money to pay for itself, will likely record a shortfall, possibly bringing in only enough income to pay 70 percent of its expenses this year, Butz said.
And The Centre has never brought in enough money to pay for itself, he acknowledged. The closest it has come has been 94 percent, and this year it will probably reach 92 percent. Consequently, it has required a $150,000-$250,000 subsidy each year.
The council has considered several options, Butz said, including eliminating parks and scaling back even more on maintenance.
Rolla parks have always been seen as “exceptional,” Butz said, and the council and administration want to keep that perception a reality.
At the end of December, the half-cent recreation sales tax ceases, and the council is considering asking the public for a quarter-cent parks and recreation sales tax.
Half of the tax, an eighth-cent, would generate $450,000. That’s the amount that would be spent on parks/recreation operations. The other half of the tax, another $450,000, would be spent on parks capital expenses.
The sales tax money would not be spent on The Centre capital expenditures, city officials have said, for The Centre will have amassed a $4 million-plus reserve fund by the time the half-cent recreation sales tax collection ends. That reserve fund, called a depreciation fund, will be used to pay for the significant repairs to The Centre.
Presumably, the operations portion would be split evenly, $225,000 to The Centre as the subsidy because the operating income doesn’t match the operating expenses and $225,000 to parks for such tasks as mowing. That split will be up to the administration and council at budget time each year. There will be no requirement that it be spent evenly.
Before the ballot language is written, the council will decide the length of time to keep the eighth-cent tax for capital expenses. The council has talked about “sunsetting” that tax after five, or perhaps 10, years.
Butz has said, though, it is likely that voters will be asked to extend that tax another five to 10 years for a second round of capital improvements and expenses. Putting a limitation on the tax’s length will keep the city accountable to voters. If future voters, 10 years from now, believe the city has done a good job with the capital program in the parks, they might be inclined to extend the tax.
Using $225,000 of the sales tax collection for parks operation won’t eliminate the general fund subsidy of parks, though it will diminish it.
The budget will have to continue including a transfer of $200,000 from the general fund to the parks budget, but that is about half of what it has been in past years, Butz said.
Butz opened the floor to comments.
Ray Schweikhardt opened the discussion by pointing out that the sales tax for The Centre takes money from poor people and subsidizes a facility that is used by people who have enough money to buy memberships.
“They will never have enough money to join,” he said, but the poor people of Rolla will, as they shop for necessities in Rolla, pay to subsidize the enjoyment of The Centre by those who are better off. “It really rankles me,” he added.
Butz agreed that such is the case, but he said The Centre membership can be open to anyone, perhaps through one of the “scholarships” or by earning “rec bucks” working on the grounds.
In addition, he said, there are many ways to enjoy The Centre without full membership. There are programs open to the public on a fee basis. Exhibits, art shows and talks are periodically presented that are free and open to all.
People can go and sit and watch television or read a book in a comfortable setting.
There is a noon basketball league that doesn’t require full membership.
“There are several ways to enjoy that building,” Butz said.
Long noted it is a cooling center in the summer, and Butz said it is a registered disaster shelter, too.
Butz said people who don’t frequently, or ever, use The Centre, should look at it as they do school facilities, which they support with taxes without using them.
A woman, who said she had recently moved here, said she and her husband are on “a very fixed income,” but she uses The Centre by paying a fee for water aerobics classes. Her husband uses the walking trail in Ber Juan Park. “Outside doesn’t cost anything,” she said.
Peggy Chirban, owner of Vessell’s Fitness Center, said the more tax money the city puts into The Centre, the more difficult it becomes for private sector fitness centers to compete for that market share.
She said she supports operation and maintenance money for the parks but not The Centre.
“I keep wishing it (the tax) was just about the outdoor parks,” she said.
Because The Centre is so near to breaking even at 92 percent of its operating costs, Chirban said she believes that with good stewardship and management practices like those used in the private sector, the public facility could stand alone with no subsidy.
A big part of the problem, she said, is that The Centre is not charging enough for the recreation services the customers receive.
Butz said the city “never wanted a country club label’ on The Centre, which is what it would have if it charged more money. “We want to keep the fees down.”
The sales tax collected in Rolla is paid not only by city residents, but by travelers and residents of the greater Rolla market region, he said.
Property tax paid by city landowners brings in $800,000 to the city each year, and of that, about $220,000 goes to the parks.
Another woman asked, “Will this park get some needed attention?”
Butz said Buehler Park is one of about five priority parks that need immediate attention if money becomes available. The parking lot and a water line are immediate needs. “We’ve talked about a fence,” he said.
Returning to the theme of the use of The Centre as more than just a recreation/fitness center, Butz said many schools, even those in other towns, use The Centre as a reward for students. Cherryville and Steelville students recently used The Centre, he said.
In addition, homeschoolers use The Centre for their physical education classes.
The Licking Basketball Tournament uses the gymnasium.
Alfred Chapman, a county resident who said he pays $12,000 in property taxes to the city each year on property he owns within the city limits, asked Butz if the city plans to spell out to voters how much the tax would cost them each year.
Butz said that would be done, but it would come after the council passes an ordinance to put the tax question on the ballot.
Chapman suggested the city put a service availability fee on The Centre, charging the fee to everyone who goes through the door. He said Rolla Municipal Utilities raises much money annually, charging an availability fee to electric and water meter users.
Some other comments:
• Long told the audience, “I feel this (the quarter-cent sales tax) is the best alternative.”
• Williams said larger cities charge people high fees to use the parks. Rolla has always tried to keep the parks open and free, he said.
• The Centre has about 4,000 members. It’s down about 800 members, nearly reaching 5,000 members at one point, Butz said.
• The proposed tax is not as high as the tax it would replace, Butz said. “Despite its reputation, Rolla is not a high tax community,” he said.
• Resident Larry Mazzeo said the main issue is the subsidy of customers of The Centre. Those customers, who receive far more services than Vessell’s, Anytime Fitness or Curves can afford to offer, pay a rate equal to or lower than a private sector rate, yet they receive not only fitness, but swimming, indoor track and gymnasium use because of the subsidy.
“I think you need to raise the rate,” Mazzeo said. The customers at The Centre can afford to pay more for what they’re getting. “It’s not right to pay for other people who can afford it.”
• Long said he believes the council has “a credibility problem” and he hopes the public will give the council a chance with this tax to regain its credibility.
• William “Pat” Botts, former employee of Rolla Channel 16, said he directed the cameras for interview shows in 1998 in which city officials pledged not to go into direct competition with private companies. “Then on the front page of the Rolla Daily News were big pictures of the new Nautilus equipment at The Centre,” he said. Those weight-lifting machines were in obvious direct competition with Vessell’s, and that’s a “credibility problem.”