Parks and rec director Gary Scott shows the two options currently on the board for a proposed rec center that will be voted on May 10. During Monday’s public meeting, community members made a suggestion that would look at combining the two options giving the center three basketball courts, a soccer field, a set of classrooms and a swimming pool. Scott will take that option to City Manager Mark Hall this week to see what the cost of that proposal would be. L&T photo/Robert Pierce
By ROBERT PIERCE
• Leader & Times
With one meeting left in the series, community members continued discussions concerning the possibility of bringing a new rec center to Liberal Monday.
Parks and rec director Gary Scott showed the audience the two facility types being considered. He said building the center will cost about $8 million, with $1.5 million of that in interest payments.
“It’s what we’re going to be spending hopefully from the 1-cent sales tax money that will be available over the next 10 years,” he said.
Scott said the facility will take approximately $700,000 a year to operate, and one of the issues needing to be addressed is how much to charge for membership.
“We were looking at 1,500 members with a $5 daily admission, $15 a month for youth, $25 for adults and so on,” he said. “That was about three weeks ago.”
That was for option A, which includes classrooms, three basketball courts and a soccer field. Option B, which takes out the soccer field and adds a swimming pool, jumped the cost to $17 a month for youth and $27 for adults at a membership of 2,000.
“The cost of the facility’s going to be about the same to construct,” he said. “It’s showing you this one would be without a pool, and this one would be with a pool.”
One audience member suggested that by putting a swimming pool in the facility, other items would be taken away. However, he did say more people would vote for Option A with a swimming pool.
“I wish we could just dish out a little more money to put in a swimming pool in the one,” Liberal resident Julio Jiminez said.
Jiminez added what will actually be used in the building needs to be communicated.
“We can want everything, but what are we going to utilize and get more benefit out of the money we’re spending on this thing,” he said. “We’re doing this for our kids. We’re doing this for the community.”
Jiminez said the community seems to be divided on the issue of whether to include a pool.
“We thought why can’t we have the pool and have a facility where we can do it all with another million?” he said.
Liberal Mayor Tim Long was among those in Monday’s audience, and he said while having all of the desires of the community filled when it comes to the rec center, there is money designated from the 1-cent sales tax for other city items.
“We have a lot of things we have to project – street repairs all the other projects that are going to come to fruition with that money,” he said. “We’re trying to take that money and say, ‘What’s our streets going to be like 10 years from now? What streets are going to be fixed?’”
The renewal of the 1-cent sales tax was passed last year, and Jiminez said it likely would not have done so without the idea of a new rec center.
With many wanting a pool and a soccer field in the facility, Scott said the question on the May 10 ballot could be worded in such a way to give voters the option of having a pool or not.
City commissioner Dave Harrison said expenses are an extremely important issue in the discussion.
“Anytime you build a building or a facility, you create another expense,” he said. “We can use the sales tax money to build this thing, but it’s still got to be operated. If you don’t get the memberships, guess who’s going to operate it – the taxpayers.”
Long said a new project also means more maintenance.
“Someday, we may not have this 1-cent sales tax, and if we don’t, these facilities aren’t sustaining themselves, the taxpayer has to sustain it,” he said. “That means we raise taxes.”
Jiminez said the community needs to take a risk on a rec center.
“We can’t be fearful of the things that are going to happen or are not going to happen,” he said. “Either we build them right or just don’t build them at all for the fear that it’s going to create more expenses to the economy. If it comes to the point we don’t have money to run it, we figure out some other way to run it – privatize it, whatever you want to do – but at least, it’s there.”
Janet Willimon, a candidate in the upcoming city commission race, said while she appreciates the fact city officials are trying to save money, a rec center is an area where a little more spending could be done.
“I admire these men for being a little conservative,” she said referring to Long and Harrison. “We’re not wanting conservative. We are wanting to build it. They will come. I say build it, they will come.”
Scott said the public needs to understand a rec center will cost money to operate and maintain, and if the money doesn’t come from the city budget, it must come from somewhere.
“(Commissioners are) going to have to say ‘Look, we’ve got to be able to maintain this, operate it. We’re going to have to charge you a tax, or the money’s going to have to come from general fund,’” he said. “This facility should not be funded by tax dollars.”
Willimon said she believes more needs to be done than just memberships in order to keep a rec center operational.
“I think you’re kidding yourself if you think for one minute that it is going to sustain itself,” she said. “I’m trying to be realistic. I think we’re kidding ourselves if we think the membership is going to pay for this.”
Scott said there are likely hidden costs also in the project.
“We’re doing everything we possibly can to make the best guess,” he said. “We’re just doing the best we can. There’s some recreational facilities that you just never make money on. It is a quality of life issue.”
Willimon said city officials need to be up front about the cost of running a rec center.
“I’m all for it,” she said. “We need it. We want it. Let’s build it, but we can’t tell the public that membership’s going to pay for it because it’s not.”
Jiminez emphasized the need to take a risk.
“You have to open your eyes to a new thing and give it a shot, and if it doesn’t work, we’ll deal with it when it comes,” he said.
Harrison said the whole goal of the project is to maximize every penny no matter where the money comes from.
“You’ve got to do it in a smart way, but at the same time, build something that people can afford,” he said.
Harrison said no matter what project is put forward, the voters will have to approve it.
“We want to give the voters the opportunity to vote,” Scott said. “I’m listening to you tonight. I will mention to Mr. Hall that you guys want to see both of them put together. The cost will be more.”
Scott said this is the best opportunity the city has had to build a new rec center.
“We’ve got to have something in our community,” he said. “That’s coming from a parks and rec guy. We’ve been needing this for a lot of years. We can program. We can help our community as a whole. We’ll have a place we can do things. Vote yes for A or B, or vote no on May 10. Right now, that’s the way it stands. If something changes, we’ll have that next week.”