Council OKs $800,000 plan for ball field site
By Craig Howard
An idea that had been a diamond in the rough for years finally developed into a gem at the June 4 Liberty Lake City Council meeting.
Without much fanfare, the governing board approved a plan to construct a pair of baseball fields on a 20-acre parcel the city purchased from the Central Valley School District last year. The project, with an estimated cost of $800,000, will also include a parking lot with 79 spaces, a small picnic shelter and concrete walking paths.
As part of Resolution 13-170, council also had options to vote in support of an approach billed at $750,000 that would have resulted in grading the entire acreage, planting grass and installing an irrigation system. Before the vote, City Administrator Katy Allen pointed out that a decision to turn the land into a single expanse of turf would cost more money in the long run if the city ever opted to add sports facilities.
Council ultimately voted 5-1 in favor of the two-diamond concept with Keith Kopelson casting the only dissenting vote. Council Member Dan Dunne missed the first meeting in June with an excused absence.
"I'm elated," said Jennifer Tomlinson, a longtime advocate for the ball fields who has been serving on a committee formed by the city to explore build-out options. "The kids will finally have a place to play in Liberty Lake."
Council has already set aside $500,000 for the project in the 2013 budget. Finance Director R.J. Stevenson provided an update on procuring the balance of the $800,000 that would be required for construction. Drawing from unappropriated revenue generated through the city's real estate excise tax, the city could come up with another $250,000, then secure the remaining $50,000 through a surplus in REET revenue this year. Stevenson said the city is already $20,000 ahead of the pace set from the tax over the past three years.
Responding to a question from Council Member Josh Beckett regarding the maintenance of the fields in the long run, Allen said the city would likely need to purchase more equipment specifically a mower to keep the diamonds manicured. Allen added that there was also the possibility of leasing the parking lot to CVSD to raise money for operational and maintenance costs.
Once Ordinance 13-170 was in the books, council proceeded to approve an agreement with Welch Comer Engineers for the design phase of the work, estimated at $44,000. Allen said "if everything goes really well," wheels on project could begin spinning by early August.
Town Square sign triggers debate
In news related to another long-discussed capital project, the governing board aired out a number of grievances with Mayor Steve Peterson on June 4.
The debate centered around a sign that Peterson had placed near the site of the Liberty Lake Farmers Market prior to the regular convening of the market on June 1. The placard was preserved from a failed bond campaign during Peterson's first go-around in office that would have raised funds to develop a civic hub on a 6.4-acre plot owned by the city across from Meadowwood Lane.
After the proposal for a $9.8 million bond to build a library and community center was soundly defeated at the ballot in April of 2008, the city readjusted its vision for the land. The latest plan includes a layered approach with the first phase consisting of an expanded parking lot and landscaping adjacent to the Spokane Transit Authority bus transfer station.
The city has applied for a state grant to help with the financing of phase one, although on Tuesday Allen said the bid was not in the most ideal position 44th on a list of 60 to be awarded the requested funds.
Peterson said he placed the sign on the grounds "because people keep asking what the city is doing with this piece of property."
"This starts a dialogue," Peterson said. "This lets people know what the possibilities are."
Holli Parker, who chairs the board overseeing the Liberty Lake Farmers Market, commended the city in the citizens comments portion of the June 4 meeting, saying the sign was a welcome addition to the site and had shed light on future plans for the land.
Council Member Shane Brickner said the sign was "a misrepresentation" of the what actually might take place on the property, considering the tenuous nature of the state grant and other factors.
"For this sign to come up like it did, I know a lot of city council members were surprised by it," Brickner said. "I don't believe it's representative of the city council's thought process."
Council Member Josh Beckett was more direct, saying the sign "was misleading to the public" and should be removed. Beckett had, in fact, done just that on Friday night, taking down the sign after he spotted it only to have Peterson put it back on Saturday morning.
"The mayor should have had conversations with the council before this happened," Beckett said. "The policies and funding for projects like these are set by council, not the mayor."
After Council Member Cris Kaminskas asked if alterations could be made to the sign to reflect council's concerns, Peterson acknowledged that he should have discussed the idea with the governing board.
"There was a lack of communication there, I will take responsibility for that," he said.
It was eventually agreed that the sign would remain, but be covered until a consensus could be reached about its content. Brickner was appointed to represent his council colleagues in conversations with city staff about the changes.
Council Member Lori Olander suggested that the revised sign include a callout for feedback from the community on potential uses of the land.
"Isn't the idea to get public input on what residents want to see there?" Olander asked.
In a related issue, Beckett called the mayor out on the use of a city booth at the farmers market that he said was being used by Peterson's brother-in-law to sell arts and crafts. Peterson countered by saying the booth was intended as an incubator space to promote local business.
"There was never a discussion about this being used as an incubator space," Beckett said. "We might need a timeout on the farmers market to get a game plan together."
Both Peterson and Allen acknowledged that the booth has not been publicly advertised as a site for local entrepreneurs. Allen recommended that the space be utilized from this point on for nonprofit community causes and by the city for informational purposes.
An update on the controversial sign on the Farmers Market grounds was part of a short agenda on June 18.
Council Member Shane Brickner, who was appointed on June 4 to represent the council in a reworking of the sign's message, told of attending the most recent Farmers Market and fielding questions from residents on the city's plans for the land. Brickner and Peterson represented the city in a booth at the market. The current sign features a revised theme with an emphasis on the first phase of the project.
"There was a lot of conversation and a lot of feedback," Brickner said. "I would encourage other council members to spend time in the booth and encourage citizens to continue to discuss with us what they'd like to see on that land."
The city has received around 120 comments from residents on recommendation cards that will be scanned and compiled for review at the council retreat. Ideas for development range from an aquatic center to a retail area to a greenspace with simple amenities. On June 22, Peterson was joined by Brickner and Keith Kopelson at the city booth.
We've had good discussions with citizens," said Peterson, who noted that development of the land would allow the Farmers Market to expand from its current allotment of 42 vendors to around 100. "People are asking, What is this, when does it start?' It's been very positive."
In his report from the public safety committee on June 18, Beckett said that the Spokane Valley Fire Department has brought up the possibility of constructing a station on an acre portion of the 6.4 acres and would be sending a representative to the council retreat to provide more input.
Utility tax debate continues
The June 18 City Council meeting included several references to the embattled utility tax as the governing board looks ahead to the first public hearing on next year's budget, scheduled for July 16. The 3-percent levy on phone, cable, gas, electric and garbage bills will also be the topic of a council workshop led by Council Member Lori Olander at the same meeting.
Olander has raised concerns about the utility tax at various points throughout the year, noting that it was never intended to be a permanent fixture in the municipal budget when it was approved by council in October 2010 to address a projected $700,000 deficit. Other representatives of the current council, including Josh Beckett and Cris Kaminskas, have also recommended re-evaluating the tax.
An examination of the utility tax will headline the council retreat, set for Aug. 11. The agenda will be rounded out by a list of topics that includes the Liberty Lake Ball Fields, an aquatic center and the city-owned 6.4 acres off Meadowwood Lane near the site of the Liberty Lake Farmers Market.