Council scuttles spending program

After adding funds for ball fields, senior center, councilors put the kibosh on plan.

When the night was over, the plan had been trampled.

First by little soccer cleats. Then by island seniors. And finally, by councilors, who, after agreeing with their constituents about the importance of two stalled projects, leveled some harsh criticisms against the latest version of the Capital Facilities Plan.

“It’s clear we have a problem,” said Councilman Nezam Tooloee. “There’s a really, really high likelihood of a total disconnect between the priorities of the mayor and staff and those of the City Council.”

Required by the state and updated each year, the CFP identifies the city’s capital needs over a six-year period. This year’s plan began at $184 million, and has since been winnowed to $101 million.

Among the projects that were cut out of the CFP, or had funds deferred to a later date, were the renovation of the Senior Center – planning for which is already under way – and the resurfacing with artificial turf of two soccer fields at Battle Point Park.

Funding for the latter project was nixed by the council in April, despite a strong show of support from the island’s soccer contingent.

Funding for the new turf was later inserted into CFP via the park district, at the request of the soccer club. Based on the council’s earlier rejection, staff deferred the money beyond the six-year window.

In light of that, field supporters were on hand again Wednesday night, saying that a lack of suitable playing surfaces on the island causes scheduling difficulties and is hazardous to players.

Councilors ultimately agreed, approving by a 5-2 vote to return $300,000 to the CFP to supplement park district funds and money already raised by the soccer club. The source of funding still would have to be approved by the council in the budget process.

“Yes, it is a balancing act,” said Councilwoman Debbie Vancil, of choosing which projects deserve funding.

“But when we’re balancing, our kids and seniors should always come out on the winning end.”

Council Chair Chris Snow and Kjell Stoknes were the two dissenters. Both said they recognize the need for better fields, but thought it should be incumbent on the park district to fund them.

Councilor Jim Llewellyn supported the measure.

“We’d probably be on the hook for even more money if they were a department within the city,” he said.

Councilor Bill Knobloch, who voted against funding the new turf earlier this year, reversed field on Wednesday, saying he’s since become better educated on the subject.

“Boy, did I have the wrath of a soccer mom come down on me,” he said, adding that the volume of emails from soccer supporters was “overwhelming.”

Meanwhile, Senior Center supporters also came out in force to voice their displeasure over the deferment of funds for their project.

The Senior Center facilities have long been targeted for renovation.

As it stands now, they are undersized and overcrowded by the island’s rapidly growing senior population, officials say.

Councilors voted unanimously to include $738,000 in funding for the project over the next three years, as requested by senior center planners.

After appeasing both soccer players and seniors, councilors then turned their attention to the CFP at large.

Tooloee read excerpts from a two-page statement he wrote in criticism of the plan. In addition to questioning the CFP’s credibility, Tooloee said the city’s priorities are “out of whack” and that the funding mix should “give a much greater voice to the voters.”

The CFP calls for about $17 million in city spending per year over the next six years for capital projects. The city in an average year completes about 40 percent of its projects, said city Finance Director Elray Konkel.

Councilor Bob Scales raised questions about non-motorized projects, and other councilors had questions that couldn’t be addressed due to time constraints.

Outgoing City Administrator Mary Jo Briggs said the city staff’s job was made difficult by a shortage of money, and no shortage of worthy projects – and they knew that the CFP was at first “neither practical nor fiscally responsible.”

“The issue is not are these good projects but how do we pay for them now and in the future,” she said.

Staff members feel better about where the plan is now, Briggs said, with spending on non-utilities at $63 million, down from $100 million in last year’s CFP.

Tooloee said those savings are being offset by the streetscape project.

The CFP in the past was crafted concurrently with the budget. This year, to improve efficiency, the city had hoped for council approval prior to the start of the budget process, but approval now may not come until the end of the year.

“That’s the most disappointing part of it,” Konkel said. “To spend six months on something and have (council members) say it’s not even credible... it’s disappointing.”

Konkel said councilors have been involved throughout the process.

“It’s just begun to be pared down, and already we’ve added two items,” Vancil said. “We can’t do everything.”

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