by nathan oster
While acknowledging their concerns with the current plan, neither the Greybull Town Council nor the Big Horn County School District No. 3 board of trustees appears willing to stand in the way of their constituents having the final say this fall on whether to build a new pool.
Sara Schlattmann and Bob Graham, members of a committee formed to explore long-term solutions for the pool issue, took turns this week presenting information to the two governing bodies. Schlattmann made the presentation to the council on Monday, while Graham made the pitch to the school board on Tuesday.
By the end of the two discussions, the committee had what it was looking for and that was a green light — or at least, the lack of a red one — for proceeding with the three-pronged plan it laid out to two bodies.
“I do not feel like it is viable,” Councilman Bob McGuire said during the closing stages of Monday’s discussion. “However, I feel a responsibility to this community that it’s not my decision. I make a motion, in spite of all of its holes — and they are numerous — but I still feel like … this is a decision that needs to be made by the community.”
Consisting of representatives of the council, school board, recreation district (which manages the pool) and the community at large, the committee spent several months developing the plan that it presented this week.
Both Schlattmann and Graham cited in their presentations the tremendous community support that was required just to get the pool reopened after it was shut down by the state due to structural problems.
Buoyed by their own surveys that suggest the community would support paying higher taxes for a new pool, the committee offered up a three-pronged approach for getting the pool built, emphasizing up front, however, that “all partners must hold up their end of the deal … or the deal would fall through.”
The committee asked the school board, which has the bonding capacity to build the pool, to support a bond of up to $8 million for the construction of a new pool.
From the town council, it sought support for a 1-cent capital facility tax that would be allocated for the operation and maintenance of the new pool.
The committee’s contribution would be a massive fundraising campaign to generate the $15,000 to $20,000 needed to hire the school district’s architect, Jim Bauer, to develop a conceptual plan that would look at potential sites, costs and layout. Some of the money would also be earmarked for other expenses needed to get the information out to the public and the questions on the ballot.
The committee’s plan includes several provisions that would stop the project in its tracks.
One, if the cost to operate the pool exceeds the amount that can be generated through the one-cent tax and projected revenue, the pool would not be built.
Two, if the cost to build is greater than $8 million, the pool would not be built.
And third, if the cost to build and operate the pool meet those requirements, the decision would go to voters in the fall.
Schlattmann told the council Monday that the committee had explored several potential solutions for how to pay for the new pool’s operation and maintenance, which at one point she called “the elephant in the room.”
The one the committee presented called for a “sixth cent” tax which, according to Town Clerk Kathy Smith later in the discussion, would generate in the neighborhood of $200,000 to $230,000 annually.
The O&M on the existing pool is around $100,000. A new one would cost more, she said. Schlattmann said the money generated by the sixth-cent tax would flow into an endowment until the pre-determined total is achieved. At that point, the tax would expire.
The one drawback is that it would be a “county” tax, meaning that the committee would have to take the plan not only to the commissioners, but also to the other municipalities in the county to get them to sign on in support of the plan.
Two-thirds of them would need to endorse the plan. Schlattmann said the committee would ask each if it has any projects of its own that could be funded by the additional revenue generated by the sixth cent.
Chris Waite, the director of the Greybull Recreation District, provided a report on the usage of the pool and said the district “is under budget” on the pool. He cautioned, however, that the pool is heading into the months when utility bills generally run the highest.
Waite said the recreation district has been pleased with the usage of the pool and added that a number of special events and programs would be launched in the coming months to drive pool usage even higher.
Council members offered tepid support for the plan.
“I would love to have a new pool, but my biggest concern is operation and maintenance,” said Kay Fleek.
Before offering his motion to put the sales tax question to voters, McGuire said he didn’t feel the plan for the pool was viable. He said the exorbitant cost, coupled with what he felt were modest usage numbers, contributed to a “fairly steep” per-capita price.
Councilor Jan Johnson added that she was reluctant from making a decision that would commit future councils to spending $250,000 on the maintenance of the pool.
In the end, the council voted to support adding to the ballot the question of whether to impose the one-cent tax for the operation and maintenance of the pool.
After bringing school board members up to speed the committee’s work and the council’s actions from the previous night, Graham cut to the chase, asking if they would be willing to support putting before voters the bond issue to build the new school.
He said it’s an opportune time — with the debt on the high school construction about to be paid off. He added that a local banker led the committee to believe that “it’s a good time to bond something because of the low interest rates.”
The bond would need to be approved by voters in the fall, along with the imposition of the one-cent tax. If either failed, it would essentially mean defeat for both, considering one builds the pool and the other maintains it.
Trustees Dale Nuttall and Dave Haller outlined several things the board must consider if it were to proceed, most notably the limitations the pool would place on the district’s capacity to bond for other projects.
In his staff report, Supt. Gary Meredith recommended that the district not move forward with the bonding motion. He cited the fact that the district has already exceeded, by about $8,000, the $30,000 it had earmarked this year for the pool.
He said “any kind of school bonding issue would put the district in grave financial risk in the future due to added enhancement costs.”
In giving his rationale, Meredith said that as the owner of the pool, the district would feel the pressure to keep the pool open even if all other sources of funding cease to exist and said any support should be contingent upon ownership of the pool being shifted away from the district and toward the community when the bond is paid off.
He further cited concerns over the district’s cash carryover. It currently stands at around $800,000, but should be closer to $1 million. Another concern is the potential “cost of living” legislation that is on the table, which if approved would drop the district’s cash carry over to “its lowest mark in the last 25 years.”
Lastly, Meredith said any funding overruns on the pool would impact staffing in a negative way. He said the district has the fourth lowest base pay for teachers in the state, and that in the last three years, it has cut three positions while adding only one non-reimbursable position.
Trustees appeared torn between Meredith’s assessment and their desire to keep a pool.
Nuttall and Haller said they felt there were enough “failsafes” in the plan to protect the school district and send the issue to voters. Trustees Jean Petty and Mike Meredith are members of the committee and supporters of the pool.
“I’m not a thrill seeker; I’m fiscally conservative,” said Jamie Flitner. “I’m really concerned with growing our cash reserves and having a rainy day fund, and as much as I love that pool and feel it’s vitally important, I have to look at what’s best for our students.”
Mike Meredith added that the district should consider cutting back on the funding spent on athletics.
Trustee Steve Hoblit said both of his kids benefited greatly from the pool and that he’d like to see a new pool, if it’s affordable, while Selena Brown said that to her, the most concerning aspect is the limits it would place on the district’s bonding capacity.
Through it all, Graham was the optimist.
“I believe in this community,” he said. “I think in any small community, you have to have recreation to get people to come here, to be teachers, to work in our plans, whatever. You have to have something for them. I think our pool is one of those assets.”