UPDATE: The Sept. 15th vote on the Merriam Community Center financing was approved by voters and the necessary city ordinances were approved by the City Council at the next Council meeting. Now the next phase of the process that the next city council must grapple with is what to do with the existing Irene B. French Community Center building. I have made my views known on that topic later on in this post. For voter's reference, I have left up the pre-vote analysis that I wrote back in June before the primary election because it reflects my thinking on this important issue. What follows was written before the Community Center vote:
Merriam already is in the midst of a debate about our community center. The hot issue concerns whether construction of a new community center east of I-35 or repair/renovation of the existing community center in downtown Merriam is a better approach to serving the needs of the community over the long term. There is a mail-in ballot election on this issue in September.
At this time based on my initial review of the financial information and based on a detailed personal inspection of the current conditions at the Irene B. French Community Center, I favor the construction of the proposed new facility but have some reservations (see below), even though the election related to that effort will occur before the city council election.
After doing a detailed inspection of the existing facility, the deciding factor for me is that the configuration of the building is not appropriate for a full service community center that can meet the needs of the diverse age groups within Merriam's population demographics. Additionally, the Aquatic Center is nearing the end of its designed useful life and will likely become more costly to operate in the near future.
There are really four options for Merriam regarding the Community Center and Aquatic Center:
Since we will be having a citizen vote on the current new community center proposal September 15th, my work as a city council member will be dependent on the results of the vote.
Given the nature of Merriam's sales tax 'pull factor' – 4 out of every 5 cents of sales taxes collected in Merriam are paid by non-residents – and the additional sales taxes which will likely be generated with the addition of two additional car dealership projects already in process, I favor dealing with the lingering community center issue sooner rather than later.
I am not entirely convinced that the design of the new community center is optimal however, so I would be satisfied with whatever the voters decide regarding the current proposal.
I do not favor option (3). I am not enthusiastic about option (2) either. Options (1) or (4) would be my preferences.
Either way after voters decide (as they should be allowed to do) on the fate of the current proposal, as your City Council representative I will work hard to make the decisions that will need to be made after the vote in an informed way with help from constituents.
As a commercial and residential licensed Johnson County Class A General Contractor, based on my preliminary on-site evaluation of the existing Irene B. French Community Center building, the water problems experienced may be correctable at a much lower cost than some numbers I have seen. However, the cost for dealing with the problem of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) compliance is more significant if the building were to be re-configured to make it more suitable as a renovated community center.
The portion of the community center issue that will remain if the new construction is approved will be the problem of what to do with the old Irene B. French Community Center facility. This issue is not being openly talked about before the election because it might discourage some to vote to approve the City Council's plan for the new center.
If elected – and if the voters approve construction of the new community center – I would like to examine possible private/public re-purposing of the existing facility before any quick decision is made to demolish the historic building constructed in 1911.
If on the other hand the new community center vote fails, my engineering background as a licensed Class A General Contractor in Johnson County and my construction company management experience will be useful in evaluating what the City Council should next consider in terms of the Irene B. French Community Center.
Even though I favor construction of the new community center, I believe that existing Irene B. French Community Center complex that includes Merriam's early school built in 1911 could potentially be re-purposed as a facility more appropriate for its educational design without needing to make extensive Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) changes. Finding an innovative alternative use, possibly through the formation of a non-profit public/private entity should be considered before a quick decision is taken to demolish the Irene B. French Center if the new community center is approved by voters.
Changes in the way new businesses operate in the information-driven emerging digital economy are creating the need for flexible spaces to be used as part-time business locations and meeting spaces for companies that primarily use virtual offices for employees but need places to congregate once or twice a week for staff or client meetings.
These business incubator facilities or 'coworker spaces', which include shared support staff for the tenant businesses using the facility on a part time basis, are popping up in KCMO and south and central Johnson County. A northern Johnson County location convenient to I-35 would seem to be an idea that deserves consideration for the Irene B. French Center. Part of the facility could potentially house a 'maker's space' as well. Parts of the facility have potential to be used as a collaborative creative art/music space.
If the facility can be re-purposed without significant structural modifications, the magnitude of potential ADA compliance costs will be much reduced because the existing compliance conditions should still be operable. As long as most portions of the facility are not modified, ADA compliance conditions would be 'grandfathered', much as the current community center use of the building has been continued without significant structural modification requiring ADA upgrades.
I believe there is a regional need for shared spaces that can be used to do creative and innovative projects. The Irene B. French Community Center building has value, both financially and to our city's history. Its convenient location near I-35 adds to its desirability. We owe it to our community to seriously consider re-purposing alternatives.
I favor construction of the new community center, and now since it looks like that will happen over the next couple of years, I support a serious effort to find an alternative use for the existing facility that uses private funding to explore an innovative re-use of the building before simply spending the money to demolish it. We should re-cycle useable buildings, especially historically significant ones.
As someone with a background suited to make such judgements, I do not believe the building is in as bad condition as has been described. Someone or some group may be willing to make the investment necessary to solve the subsurface water encroachment problems.
Based on my investigations, some lower cost solutions have not been tried. For example, exposing the foundation at probable leak sites and patching/sealing from the outside of the foundation walls could provide a relatively lower cost solution to the foundation water influx problems.
I have a business track record as a creative problem solver. If elected I will work tirelessly to leave no stone unturned in exploring the possibilities for the historic IBF building. It could be an anchor for an eventual downtown redevelopment and should be preserved if possible.
Merriam is currently in the middle of a mail-in election about the future of community assets important to the residents of Merriam. The mail in ballot for the authorization to fund construction of a new community center/aquatic facility must be returned by September 15, 2017.
As a candidate for City Council, I was not involved in voting on this particular plan as a council member nor shaping its final form, but I personally plan to vote in favor of the ballot question.
I do not like some aspects of the plan, but overall I have decided to support it. I have discussed some of my thinking in earlier sections above.
Since I am running for office rather than currently part of the body that has put forward this proposal to the voters, my vote on this matter is of no higher value than the vote of any other resident in this particular case. The results of the election will be decided before I could possibly serve on the council.
However, as a candidate for office and with voters trying to evaluate me as a potential member of the next City Council, I think it is fair to let voters hear my thoughts on this issue.
There have been various mailers and other discussions on the Sept 15 vote floating around our mail boxes, and on social media platforms such as Nextdoor discussing the upcoming vote and advocating for or against the ballot question.
One resident asked me for some thoughts about these mailers and other materials that have been circulating. After responding to him in an email, I decided to post my response here as well (with minor edits):
Sorry about the slow reply. Was out of town for a week.
I actually have looked into the issues surrounding the Community Center vote quite extensively. I plan on voting for the measure after doing my research which included an extensive personal inspection of the current facilities.
Back in July, I laid out my thinking about the community center vote on my web site.
The city has put out an information piece about the vote which I have posted to my web site.
Mostly I find the info in that flyer to be accurate. Maybe a little more negative on the condition of the current facilities than I would be, but overall the option of putting significant public resources into the existing facilities is not really a wise investment either.
The Aquatic Center is at the end of its useful design life and will quickly start falling apart. The Irene B. French Community Center is not really configured to be a Community Center. It was built to be an elementary school. With its maintenance issues and its poor configuration, it's probably time to go in a different direction there as well.
I am not in favor of just closing those two facilities because they are really the only two facilities in Merriam for the community to use (other than parks) and it would be a negative signal to potential home buyers if we no longer support such community assets.
I have recently seen 3 different mailers (mailer #1, mailer #2, mailer #3) from the Vote No group (whoever they are – 'Partnership for Responsible Taxation', listing a return address of PO Box 3451, zip code of 66203 and mailed from Wichita, KS).
The assertions made in the series of mailers mostly seem to be misleading at best.
In my view, the city funding plan is very likely to be attainable despite the assertions in the Vote No mailers that the sales tax revenues might not be realistic and then the residents would have to make up the difference with property tax increases.
The sales tax projections used by the city do not include any tax revenue from the two new car dealerships already approved and the expansion of one of the existing dealerships that has been preliminarily approved. Also the Kmart parcel will likely be redeveloped soon and again will also likely generate sales tax revenue.
4/5ths of the sales taxes collected in Merriam are paid by non-residents, so while I am generally opposed to tax increases, this situation involves Merriam residents investing 2 dimes and getting a dollar back in the form of a needed community asset.
Even if there is a downturn in sales tax revenue due to a slowdown in auto or other retail sales, such a reduction is likely to be shorter term and should be offset by the additional revenue from the new projects not included in the project financing plan.
Furthermore, if there is still not enough revenue from sales taxes due to a very severe downturn, Merriam currently has a substantial reserve fund it could draw on over a typical recession to cover shortages needed to make the bond payments. The city budget also includes some areas that could be temporarily deferred (for example art projects) used to cover shortages without impacting city services.
Overall, I just don't see a realistic probability that the city would need to raise taxes further to pay for the new community center. These thoughts are based on several conversations that I have had with the city finance director after looking at the budget docs.
The cost assertions for use of residents of the new community center in the Vote No mailer claiming an 85% increase in annual membership fees is very misleading. The fees will likely go up slightly for some membership categories but will actually go down for some other groups.
Keeping in mind that unlike the current Merriam facilities, we will have a year-round pool and other facilities upgrades if the new center is built, so for some membership categories a slightly higher membership fee seems reasonable. The "as much as 85%" number doesn't make any sense to me and they have provided no explanation of that claim.
Similarly, no support is provided for the claim that "the city's proforma has dramatically underestimated operating expenses."
To some extent, the biggest risk to the operating budget is that fewer people will use the Community Center than predicted. I think the projections used are reasonable but they might be off due to fluctuations in the economy. If people start using the new facility while the economy is strong, I think the membership numbers are likely to remain solid. Once people get used to using a particular facility they are likely to keep using it.
I expect our family will join if the new Community Center facility is built. We currently do not use the Merriam facilities. We have belonged to the OP Community Center and paid non-resident rates. I am sure there are others that will switch as well.
One mailer states, "The City could make repairs to the Historic Irene B. French Center and the pool for a small fraction of this amount with NO DEBT." That statement seems patently false. The repairs needed are substantial and will also require bond debt, just not as much. If the repairs are not done the operating expenses will be sky high due to a continuing stream of emergency capital repairs.
I could go on but I'll stop now. I hate mailers from unknown parties that make bold assertions but provide no backup for the assertions. While there might be reasons to oppose the new community center, the mailers are misleading in areas that are knowable, making me suspicious of the other assertions that are not as easy to prove one way or the other.
If you have any additional thoughts or questions I am happy to try to get answers for you.
In response to some other misconceptions that are being advanced in social media, here are a few additional thoughts on what a 'yes' or 'no' vote means from a process standpoint. These are sort of the technical aspects of the process.
The 'Yes' vote means that the City Council is authorized to pass an ordinance authorizing the quarter cent sales tax increase for financing the bonds used to fund a new community center. The City Council would then have to pass several measures based on that voter authorization to actually build the new community center.
First, the City Council would have to actually authorize the sales tax increase and the issuance of the bonds. Then they will have to authorize the actual final plan for construction of the new community center through a series of additional measures over a period of time.
Finally the City Council will have to decide what to do with the existing Irene B. French Community Center which I have discussed elsewhere. If elected and if the voters authorize the construction of a new community center facility, I will work tirelessly to find a fiscally sound path to save the historic limestone building that so many Merriam residents love as part of our community heritage.
Following a 'No' vote result, the City Council still has all options on the table regarding what to do. As I indicated, there is nothing technically decided at this point and speculation about what money will be spent and if the old community center is upgraded according to a particular plan is just that – speculation.
Just as with a 'Yes" vote result, the City Council would have to pass measures to actually renovate the existing Irene B. French Community Center and Merriam Acquatic Center according to some plan. The difference is the City Council would not have to bring it to a public vote unless new taxes would be required for funding.
The City Council could even propose a different 'new' community center plan and bring it to a vote. That is why voter's choices in the upcoming November 7 General Election for City Council seats are important too!