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Senior center project brought back to table

t Council also keeps police and court proposal moving forward.

With the availability of city funds now limited for nearly anything other than basic needs, it’s not surprising that proponents for two city construction projects find themselves jockeying for a place on Bainbridge Island’s 2009-2014 Capital Facilities Plan (CFP).

Most members of the City Council agree that both the expansion of the senior center and construction of a new police and municipal court building are worthy of being completed during the next five years, or sooner.

Still, as indicated Wednesday during council members’ sometimes heated discussion among themselves and with the administration, there is uncertainty whether both can be financed during a time when the economy continues to dip.

The city says it has a $2.5 million shortfall and needs to go into debt to recompense an operating budget that has been tapped to fund ongoing capital projects.

The council decided to move both projects forward so their respective council committees could figure out a funding plan for both, despite the city’s dire financial straits.

To begin with, the funding strategies the council discussed Wednesday are complicated and dependent on iffy, economy-dependent actions, such as: voters approving a $3 million bond to help pay for the $9 million senior center expansion; and the sale of two separate properties for a combined $8 million to fund most of the police and court facility project.

The senior center project appeared to be a low priority for the city after it was dropped from the CFP list earlier this summer in response to the financial shortfall. The council didn’t appear to object when the city’s Public Works Department suggested that the $265,000 scheduled for 2009 was needed elsewhere because the project wasn’t a basic city service. On Wednesday, Councilor Debbie Vancil said moving the project to 2015 was unacceptable.

“It’s been in the pipeline for years and hundreds have put a lot of work into planning and designing the project,” Vancil said. “It’s a needy, vital project and it should be a top priority. It was, but then police and courts went from No. 10 to No. 1 and the senior center went the other direction. I’d like to see it back in its proper place so the Public Works Committee can go forward in fundraising for it.”

Vancil proposed that the project receives $70,000 of the approximate $1.5 to $2 million in councilmanic bonds that the administration has proposed be issued next month. It would be used for part of the senior center project’s design.

She said that the senior center plans to raise $3 million from the private sector and receive another $3 million in state and local grants. She proposed that the city voter approval in 2010 for the other $3 million needed for the project. It was also suggested that about $175,000 in councilmanic bonds be raised in 2009 for additional design work.

After more council members voiced support of the senior center, they voted 7-0 in favor of putting the project back in the CFP. Councilor Barry Peters argued before the vote that citizens had indicated in recent surveys that they overwhelmingly favored additional bike and pedestrian trails over any other improvement, including senior center expansion.

He said such non-motorized improvements deserved voter consideration first, but he acquiesced when his suggestion received no support.

The city-owned senior center, which is administered by the Bainbridge Island Parks & Recreation Department, serves more than 1,000 members and is rapidly growing out of its 5,000-square-foot facility near Waterfront Park. The expansion calls for an additional 12,500 square feet at the same site.

Tom Kilbane, president of the senior center, said Thursday that he was pleased but cautious about the council’s action.

“I don’t know what the final result of all this will be,” he said, “but I think the more it is debated and discussed, and not decided behind closed doors, the better off we are.

“We just want a fair hearing and to get it in front of the voters,” he continued. “This is the fourth time the council has voted 7-0 on it, so I’ll just be happy when it’s approved and put on the ballot to let the voters decide.”

Kilbane said he and other proponents of the project never gave up because they believe the community understands the importance of expanding the facility.

“We had to lobby very hard and kept up a presence at the meetings to let the council know how we felt,” Kilbane said. “It seems like the council has been going one way and the administration another way.

“It’s been frustrating. The city is having a rough patch right now,” he continued. “But it’s my experience that government should accommodate the goals and wishes of the public... let them tell you what they want.”

Vancil also took the lead during discussion of the court and police project, which would involve design and construction of a building at an undetermined site.

The estimated cost is around $8 million, which the administration proposes would be raised by selling the Suzuki property it owns on Sportsman Club Road for an estimated $5 million and the land and buildings on Valley Road where Bainbridge Island Municipal Court currently resides. The cost estimate is $3 million.

The building, which has housed the court on a “temporary” basis since the early 1990s, is a converted storage unit.

Vancil said that the fact the current facilities for police and court are substandard is not questionable, “but what is debatable is to what level do we improve them.” She said a new needs assessment (one was done in 2006) was necessary “because the expenditure has to meet the city’s needs and what we are able to pay.”

She also proposed that no general funds or councilmanic debt be used to build the new facility, and that a public safety voter-bond may be needed to help fund the project.

Municipal Court Judge Kathryn Carruthers said Thursday she didn’t think that another needs assessment is required since “it’s clear what our needs are there... they’re pretty basic,” she said. “They haven’t changed. We are providing a basic service and we shouldn’t be working in a storage unit.

“We need a courtroom and a jury room and all the other basic things to do our job,” she continued. “The council should come ask the court people who work here to find out the conditions we deal with every day.”

The council voted unanimously to send the project forward to the city’s Land Use Committee without any decision about how it would be funded. The Suzuki property is for sale, though the council hasn’t approved using the proceeds for the proposed police and court facility.

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