Rosehill: A thorny transition from old to new

By Kevin Stoltz, Mukilteo City Councilmember | Dec 08, 2010

We’re just months away from opening the new community center, and even though the big decisions have already been made, I have no doubt this month’s column will infuriate a few electeds and probably some others.

What I have to say is lengthy and represents a culmination of events over the past five years, in the history of the community center.

I wanted to wait until the new community center was built and destruction of Rosehill was eminent, so the focus could be on what has actually transpired and how it will impact future decisions the council will need to make, instead of my comments being viewed strictly as sour grapes.

I think the argument that is often used by those with differing opinions is that I view the glass as half empty, whereas they view the glass half full. In reality, I also view the glass half full, it’s just I don’t ignore the hole in the bottom.

Four years ago, I had an agenda for the Rosehill Community Center: Get $10,000 in the budget to spruce it up a bit, have it open to the community on weekends, and don’t charge community groups to meet in the community center.

That didn’t work out so well, and despite repeated attempts, the argument that seemed to prevail was that we didn’t have the money.

My goals were modest, and were based on the assumption that we would continue to invest in capital facilities only when we had saved enough money to do so.

Never in my wildest dreams would I have imagined we’d not only choose the most expensive option for a new community center, but we’d finance it at 100 percent in the process – all this without a guaranteed revenue source to pay for it.

Community group use of meeting rooms in Rosehill seemed like a reasonable idea, especially considering the fact the groups can use meeting rooms in nearly every other city-owned building at no charge.

However, my attempts over three years were always shot down for various reasons. The last argument used was that the programming was ramping up and there simply wouldn’t be enough room to provide free space when other revenue producing classes needed the space.

It sounds like a good argument, but it was a lie. For months afterward, I took pictures of the weekly schedule of all the rooms in Rosehill and “underutilized” is the best description of the room use.

In fact, Rm. 103, the best suited for community group meetings, had been converted to a storage room.

Even my use of an available meeting room for Waterfront Wednesdays meetings last summer was questioned, so we just met elsewhere.

In the process of answering the renovate vs. new debate, the council commissioned additional studies, learned that renovation would cost millions less than new, and then asked our residents, ‘If it doesn’t cost you any more in taxes, would you prefer a new community center or a renovated community center?’

Naturally, new was the answer.

Unfortunately and unknown to most who voted for the new, the new option didn’t include a gym and the no new taxes promise wasn’t quite true (more about this later).

Instead of a gym, the new community center will have a multipurpose room and the option for a gym in the future when we can afford it.

When a resident brought a letter that our architects had written to another city considering building a new community center that stated a gym has the highest revenue to expense ratio of any rooms in a community center, including multipurpose rooms, the council completely dismissed it. I even witnessed one council member quickly glance at it and then toss it aside.

Interestingly, when I shot my pictures of the weekly schedules, the gym by far was the most-used room in Rosehill.

When a couple of council members (I was one of them) proposed repositioning the new community center so we could keep the old one and still have a gym, at least until we could afford a gym in the new one, that concept was quickly dismissed with the help of a letter from the architect that cited several questionable “facts.”

Strings were being pulled. Even the Mukilteo School District, which had previously been supportive by enforcing the deed restrictions, had turned a blind eye to requests from residents to require a gym in the new community center.

Construction of the new community center resulted in the loss of the tennis courts, the small ball field and the closing of the upper parking lot.

Like the gym, the tennis courts and ball field won’t be replaced. Simply put, active recreation isn’t in the cards for the new community center.

A revenue source for the city, the upper parking lot had 120 paid parking spots used by commuters and surrounding businesses. Eliminating this parking without providing alternatives has proven to be a (preventable) mistake.

I had introduced a resolution to the council that would have required identifying alternative parking and revenue sources before eliminating existing parking. It was butchered and only the revenue portion was passed, resulting in Mukilteo having no general overnight parking and increased fees for the remaining permit-only parking, which, in turn, resulted in more cars in the ferry line.

Construction of the new community center resulted in the permanent loss of the Artist’s Garage Sale (moved to Everett), as well as the displacement of the Farmer’s Market and Lighthouse Festival to Lighthouse Park.

Moving events to Lighthouse Park isn’t necessarily a bad idea, but moving without any kind of traffic consideration or mitigation is a terrible idea.

There are many other issues and attitudes that illustrate a lack of community focus for the new community center. I have to admit, I feel at the top of the list is the emphasis on hosting wedding receptions in the new community center.

Make a quick jaunt to the Red Cup Café, and you’ll find the city has placed cards advertising the new community center for weddings. The card even has a picture of a bride and groom walking on train tracks.

Considering the new “wedding circle” at Lighthouse Park is just a short stone’s throw from the railroad tracks, I’m not so sure we’re sending the right message. Actually, I’m pretty sure we’re not.

There’s one more point I need to make before transitioning to the financial portion of my diatribe, which is the operating expenses necessary to keep the doors of the new community center open.

Regardless of how many weddings you can book and other rental revenue that can be secured, real community centers ALWAYS need a transfer from the general fund. That’s just the way it works.

Even though, in these economic times, the city needs to cut as many expenses as we can, there’s a part of me that believes it’s a bit hypocritical to spend this much on a community center and finance it like we have, and then not spend the few extra bucks to have it open for use by the community.

Granted, the new community center will be open on Saturdays, but what about Sundays and why not allow community groups who make Mukilteo a better place to live use the community center?

Of course, some will say the Rosehill Room will always be open to the community, but they also need to acknowledge that at a recent council meeting, one of the council members made a point that community meetings shouldn’t be allowed.

The most important impact of the new community center is the cost and how that impacts other important projects. This is important, and while the majority of electeds understand this, there are some who either don’t or don’t care.

To finance the new community center, the council approved councilmatic bonds which are to be repaid in the amount of just over $800,000 for the next 20 years. The payment comes out of the REET1 (Real Estate Excise Tax) fund.

Currently, the revenue into the REET1 fund is around $300,000. This means the payments for the new community center are over $500,000 more than the revenue into that fund.

The short-term solution is that instead of putting money down on the new community center, we financed it at 100 percent and kept a $2 million reserve in this fund to make payments.

Unless, real estate sales/development rebounds quickly and to a substantial level, we could burn through that reserve in 4 years.

The general fund is projected to operate at just under a $700,000 deficit in 2011. Again, this can happen because we have a projected ending fund balance of just over $4 million (think of it as a savings account that we’re using).

AFTER committing to the 20-year payment plan for the community center, the council wisely approved the formation of a long range financial planning committee, which has resulted in the council majority recognizing that deficit spending isn’t sustainable. That’s why taxes are going up, and expenditures are going down, to close that $700,000 deficit gap.

Once the reserve runs out in the REET1 fund to make the payments for the new community center, there is really only one option left, which is to pay for it out of the general fund.

When that becomes a reality, the promise of no new taxes to pay for a new community center becomes a solid lie. Until then, the financial shell game can continue, because not everyone has figured it out or are in denial.

So, it is what it is. The big decisions have been made and we have to move forward from here. Just as the long range financial planning committee has determined, we can’t continue on the path we’re currently on.

Fortunately, I think the council will take a more active role in directing the necessary change than it has in the past.

In my attempt to prove that my glass really is half full and I’m just interested in plugging the hole, I’ll be hosting a “Council Chat” session on the second Wednesday of each month from 7-8:30 p.m.  However, the first meeting is on Wednesday, Dec. 15.

Coincidentally, that’s the day each month this column is published. I figured that will give the electeds and any staff who I might have offended the opportunity to come and express their displeasure with me at the time of the offense instead of allowing it to carry over into the decision-making rational of the council meetings.

But more importantly, the chime-in meetings have gone away, and I believe, good or bad, there’s not the same opportunity for residents to talk one-on-one with their council members.

So, I’ll also be inviting other council members to attend as well. The Council Chat for the next couple of months will be at City Hall, and when the community center is open, will move there.

And a final note, to demonstrate that I really may have lost my mind: I’ve decided to run for council president this year.

There are many reasons, but it mainly has to do with keeping the glass half full and plugging the hole. However, the council elects the council president, and while I relate well with the supermajority of the council, admittedly there are a couple who I’m quite sure would rather see hell freeze over before they’d vote for me. So the odds of me being elected is that it’s likely not going to happen. At least I can say I tried.

The preceding feature is published the secondWednesday of each month for The Beacon and is the opinion of Kevin Stoltz and may or may not represent the views of the Mukilteo City Council.

 

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