Council split nixes contract for LL Sports Fields
Project likely to be reconsidered at Nov. 5 meeting
By Craig Howard
This spring, the emergence of sports fields in Liberty Lake seemed as certain as the traditional exuberance that surrounds a new baseball season.
At Tuesday night's City Council meeting, a split vote by the governing board sent the much-anticipated project reeling like a team ejected from the pennant race on a late-inning hit.
As of Wednesday morning, however, that discussion appeared to be headed into extra frames. Council Member Keith Kopelson, who represented one of the votes against awarding a phase one construction bid Tuesday night, said further questions and clarification following the meeting from City Attorney Sean Boutz has allayed concerns he had regarding the project. On Wednesday morning, he asked to have the matter added to the city's Nov. 5 agenda for reconsideration, Kopelson said, adding that he plans to change his vote.
The background to Tuesday's conversation goes back to May. With council having set aside $500,000 for the sports fields project in the 2013 budget, City Administrator Katy Allen presented a trio of design options for the 20-acre plot purchased from the Central Valley School District last year. The scenarios included their own respective price points, each more costly than the funds allotted in the budget.
In June, council agreed to designate a total of $800,000 for a pair of baseball diamonds and a parking lot on half of the property. Meanwhile, determining a plan for the remaining portion of the 20 acres was identified as a council priority for 2014.
At Tuesday night's City Council meeting, Allen presented the construction contract for phase one of the sports fields for council approval. KRCI LLC outbid three other firms earlier this month with a base bid of $707,258 that was increased to $756,258 on Tuesday when council allotted funds for a pair of alternative additions to the baseball fields, a paved walkway and a warning track bordering one of the outfield fences.
Before the vote was called, Council Member Josh Beckett raised concerns about the city investing in a project that might not blend with CVSD's future use of the site. Under the agreement, the district could purchase the 20 acres back from Liberty Lake and pay full market value to the city for any improvements made on the land. There has been talk of CVSD building an elementary school or middle school on the property.
Beckett was joined by Mayor Pro Tem Odin Langford and Kopelson in his hesitation to approve the KRCI contract, despite an appearance by CVSD Superintendent Ben Small earlier in the meeting that included the reassurance that phase one of the sports fields fit into the district's concept for the land – even after the addition of a school.
Small also indicated to city leaders that the district would be running a capital facilities bond in 2015. The results of the vote, Small said, "would make the use of the site more and more clear." He added that construction of a new school in Liberty Lake could begin by 2016 if funds are approved.
In taking issue with the city building facilities on acreage that could be bought back by CVSD, Beckett said he was under the initial impression that a future school placement "was probably 20 years down the road." He, Kopelson and Langford all voiced support for moving the project to the north side of Liberty Lake.
"I think it would jumpstart the north side," Langford said. "I'm not against the program; I'm just against the location."
Council Member Dan Dunne countered, saying the superintendent's presentation had "dispelled any uncertainty" about CVSD undermining fields and amenities built by the city.
"This is a project that will turn a noxious weed patch in the heart of a neighborhood into a recreational facility our community can utilize," Dunne said.
When the vote finally took place, Dunne, Cris Kaminskas and Shane Brickner chose to approve the construction contract. Beckett, Kopelson and Langford voted against, resulting in a 3-3 tie. Since no city initiative requiring a council vote can move forward without an affirmative margin, the contract for the sports fields was denied.
Council Member Lori Olander, whose vote would have broken the draw one way or another, missed the meeting with an excused absence.
She may get a chance to vote on the matter at the Nov. 5 meeting given Kopelson's desire to revisit the issue. Allen indicated Tuesday that the vote could be taken again if one of the dissenting council members raised the issue at a future board meeting. A construction bid remains valid for 30 days from the date it was awarded -- in this case, Oct. 24.
With the future of the sports fields officially up in the air, there was some reticence to approve the 2014 Athletic Field Use and Allocation Policy introduced by Parks and Recreation Director Michelle Griffin earlier in the meeting, with Allen pointing out the dilemma of "having a policy for a facility we did not operate." Council went ahead and approved the document, most of which addresses maintenance and usage fees on the two proposed baseball fields.
Griffin told council that the fees would "be below the rates of all the other fields in the region." Practice for a nonprofit team would run $5 an hour while the city would charge $10 an hour for a nonprofit tournament, game or clinic. Rates would go up slightly ($15 per practice hour and $20 per tournament hour) for organizations outside the nonprofit realm.
Griffin also announced new vendor fees for groups that participate in two city-sponsored events – Liberty Lake Days and the Winter Festival. The nonprofit charge for booths will be set at $10 while Liberty Lake businesses will pay $15. A $25 fee will be charged to businesses outside Liberty Lake. Civic clubs like Kiwanis and Rotary would still be granted a fee waiver for city-sponsored events.
"Every year, we're trying to build programs, and revenue from fees really helps," Griffin said.
Finance Director R.J. Stevenson continued the theme of generating revenue in the workshop discussion on the 2014 budget. As he did last year, Stevenson advised council to approve the allowable 1-percent increase in property tax, a hike that would mean an extra $3.50 per year on a home valued at $180,000.
Council has the option of banking the property tax capacity for future years, although Stevenson said an increase would guard against some of the volatility that could arise in other revenue sources like sales tax.
"We don't know what's going to happen with the economy," Stevenson said. "If we're looking to maximize resources to pay for future projects, property tax is one area we can count on."
Allen said that while the city does currently have healthy reserves, "there is no designated fund to take care of our fleet or our buildings."
Beckett recommended the city look at cutting costs that would generate the same amount (around $20,000) raised by a 1 percent increase in property tax.
While the ultimate decision on the tax will be part of upcoming budget talks, the conversation did lead to a council determination on the budget for public art at the Harvard Road Roundabout. With a 5-1 vote (Dunne in the minority) the board reduced the designated funds for roundabout art from $100,000 to zero.
Brickner said it "would be ridiculous to spend more" on the roundabout, while Kaminskas pointed out it would make more sense to install art at a city park.
"I think that money could be better spent in other areas," Kopelson said.
Allen briefly addressed phase two of the sports fields project in the budget workshop, recommending that the city continue discussions with CVSD while leaving the funds (around $1.2 million) out of the 2014 budget.
Allen also provided an update on Townsquare Park, a project that will take up 2 of the 6.4 acres owned by the city along Meadowwood Lane near the site of the Liberty Lake Farmers Market. Allen said the latest design represents a less costly rendition of the plans originally drawn up in 2007.
While not including features like a fountain, history wall, concrete amphitheater and abundant vegetation, the latest version of the park would add a grass amphitheater, trails, landscaping and a 39-space parking lot. On Tuesday, council also voted to include a restroom as part of the project at a cost of $130,000.
The budget of $655,000 for the park will come from real estate excise tax ($450,000), the general fund ($170,000) and the stormwater fund ($35,000). The Spokane Transit Authority, which operates a park and ride facility near the site, will reimburse the city $80,000 for the project.
Allen said construction of the park could begin by next summer with a timeline of 60 to 90 days.
"It's a scaled-back design, but it's still nice," Allen said.
The city is also looking to set aside funds for upgrades at a pair of existing parks next year. The list of potential renovations at Pavillion Park includes improved lighting and drainage, a permanent concession stand, landscaping and a Fallen Heroes Circuit Course similar to the one installed at Rocky Hill Park this year. A total of $300,000 would go toward the work.
At Rocky Hill Park, a budget of $105,000 would address refurbishing of an existing barn for equipment storage, grading, additional community garden plots and signage.
City Council will meet next at 7 p.m. Nov. 5 in council chambers at City Hall. The meeting will include a public hearing on the 2014 budget and likely a revisiting of whether to award the sports field phase one construction bids.