By Meg Olson
In a reversal, three of five parks commissioners pulled back sharply from the idea of asking voters if they would support using park operating funds to repay a loan to help renovate the Julius fire station as a library.
At the district’s regular meeting July 13, Mary Edgley, Linda Hughes and Doug Shier expressed discomfort moving forward with a state low-interest loan application without a thumbs up from voters.
“If we’re going to spend further tax dollars we need input from the community,” Hughes said. “I would prefer to get votes than town hall meetings.”
Shier said he did not oppose the loan, “if that’s what the people want.” While Edgley said she would prefer a vote on a one-time levy to cover any shortfall in fundraising for the library renovation, but would consider the loan. “I just want public input,” she said.
Commissioner Stephen Falk, who had prepared and submitted the application to the state LOCAL program, which provides low-interest loans to community projects to save the cost of elections and bond issuance, said the district’s current revenues could cover the loan repayment. The district has been careful to cut costs so they end each year with approximately a $10,000 overrun.
The Friends of the Point Roberts Library (FOPRL) have to date raised $446,000 with a projected project cost of $538,000. They are still in conversation with several potential donors, including The Cottages at Seabright Farm, said FOPRL representative Judy Ross. A matching donation of $40,000 was in place if that amount can be raised, bringing fundraising closer to its goal.
Under a memorandum of understanding (MOU) approved by parks board commissioners at their October 14, 2014 meeting (with Falk abstaining due to his FOPRL membership) the parks district agreed if the final cost exceeds the amount raised, the excess amount will be funded by the parks district, subject to approval of the voters if it becomes necessary to pass an increased or excess tax levy for this
Falk said they would not have updated numbers without further input from architect David King and progress towards preparing the project for bid.
“Whether it’s a loan or a levy, David King is the driving force and we need to get some numbers from him,” Hughes said, and commissioners agreed not to rush to put an advisory vote on the November ballot, waiting for clearer information on costs and going to the voters in the spring if needed.
When commission chair Mark Robbins discovered putting a measure on a special election ballot could be prohibitive, he hastily called a July 28 meeting to discuss an advisory ballot measure, asking voters if they would support incurring “non-voted debt in an amount not to exceed $150,000 and payable under the district’s current and future maintenance and operations levy.”
Robbins said while the district “doesn’t know what we need to borrow, if anything,” the vote would give the commissioners information to decide on whether to proceed with the loan if it became
“It seems prudent to line up financing even if we don’t need to borrow,” he said.
“I take issue with having this special meeting at all,” Hughes said. “This resolution is premature. Some of us said we were uncomfortable borrowing any money at all since our income is limited. We aren’t meeting current parks and recreation goals now. We have been talking about hiring a manager and upgrading Baker Field.”
“The library is a separate entity,” Edgley said. “We are connected only by the fact that we’ve allowed the library to use space in a parks-owned building.” She read a prepared statement explaining her changed position, and why she would not support using any of the parks district’s regular levy. She suggested “the parks board could have chosen to use that building (Julius fire station) more closely tied to our mandate,” of providing parks and recreation opportunities to the community.
“Parks and recreation dollars should only be used for parks and recreation,” Hughes said.
Edgley and Hughes said that, rather than spending their surplus or the rental income from the Verizon towers on supporting the new library, the funds should be used to upgrade Baker Field, hire a manager for the district to ensure maintenance of facilities and tick off items on a “wish list” of improvements to the community center. Edgley also suggested the board should be prepared in case an opportunity to expand parkland became available, which she suggested was likely at the July 13 meeting.
“We’ve supported the library with the granting of a $90,000 asset. That should be the extent of our generosity.” The parks district currently owns the Julius fire station. If the station is renovated to be used as a library, it will remain parks property but the Whatcom County Library System would furnish and operate it.
“This seems inconsistent with the MOU,” Falk said. “We are legally committed to try and fund the gap. The costs will only go up the longer we push this off, and that would be a shame.”
Falk, new to the board last year, also said he was surprised by the sudden “fervor” of his fellow commissioners to move forward with additional staffing and improvements. “I haven’t heard of these things and the library comes up every month. We haven’t been using our full levy and we have $50,000 in the bank. Why haven’t we been doing these things?”
Robbins said he could see no consensus in the group to move forward with an advisory vote or reschedule a meeting to talk about a one-time levy. “I think we’re in a position now to just wait for FOPRL to tell us when they’re really done fundraising.” Falk said he was disappointed the gridlock would likely mean the project, which could have begun next year, would be delayed. “If it takes another year, it takes another year,” Hughes said.
FOPRL member Judy Ross pointed out the parks district and the county library system first proposed using the old fire station as a new library. “I always assumed the parks board was behind this process,” she said. “I’ve been startled that at these last two meetings the library is being considered an intruder. I’m mystified the library, that reading, is not being considered consistent with a mandate of recreation.”