Can city, School, Park-Rec combine on community center?
Thursday, May 01, 2014 10:14 AM
There’s little doubt about whether or not the Decorah residents would welcome a new community center.
The question is whether or not they are willing to pay for it.
That was one of many issues that were brought up Monday night during a special meeting between the Decorah City Council, Decorah Parks and Recreation Board and Decorah School Board.
The city recently invited the Decorah School Board to the table to find out if there might be the possibility of partnering on a project that could meet both the District’s future elementary school facility needs and the city’s additional recreation needs.
“There are sites in Ankeny and Waukee where comparable partnerships have gone well. I see no reason why a similar situation couldn’t happen here,” said Superintendent Mike Haluska.
In December, the architectural firm Design Alliance of Waukee proposed a new community center facility, estimated to cost $9.5 million, be built on city property where recycling bins and a softball diamond are now located off Claiborne Drive, west of the new tennis courts. The proposed center would include a large gymnasium that could be divided into multiple courts, a track, meeting rooms, multi-purpose rooms and the city’s Park-Rec office.
In January, the Decorah Shareholders group, the citizens advisory committee for the School District, released the recommendation that building a new Pre-K through second-grade facility would be the best long-term solution for Decorah.
In recent years, discussion has centered around a number of issues plaguing the District’s older buildings, such as poor air quality, a lack of natural lighting, security concerns and more.
Recent conversation has focused on whether or not the District could expand John Cline Elementary to the west or build a new facility on the existing site.
City Manager Chad Bird said the city also has discussed the concept of exploring cost sharing and service sharing, and what a combined elementary facility/community center might look like.
Council Member Tade Kerndt asked if there might be a scenario by which the District could bond for and pay for the facility, since 90 percent of the community center’s users would likely be School District patrons. He said under that scenario, the city could just pay for use of part of the facility.
“I’m not sure of the legalities of such an arrangement. Typically both entities would bond for their own facility. If the intent was to spread it (the cost) out amongst people, the county would even provide a wider audience,” said Haluska.
School Board President Ron Fadness said the District has a “short leash” regarding what it can and can’t do.
“We have to follow ‘Dillon’s rule’ as opposed to ‘home rule.’ We can only do what is specifically authorized to us. My initial impression is that we can’t build a community center, because it’s not one of our specific roles,” said Fadness. (Under Iowa law, school districts are limited to those powers expressly granted by statute, whereas municipalities are allowed to self govern, except in cases where something is specifically prohibited by statute.)
Haluska added he would check with the District’s attorney.
“I’m just trying to figure out how we could spread the cost over a direct user group,” said Kerndt.
When Council Member Paul Wanless said he believes the average community center user would be a member of the Decorah School District, not someone from a broader audience, Board Vice President Melanie Tietz asked how arrangements in other communities work.
Bird explained in Waukee, the YMCA is connected to a school and participated in sharing of facilities. Then when the Y decided to build another facility, the building was given to the district.
“Ultimately, the district ended up benefitting,” said Bird.
Haluska said in Ankeny, the YMCA is attached to what was a high school, but they still act independently.
“If the community decided we didn’t need to have a full rec center, but what we needed was a little more gym space and a classroom or two, could the school build a larger gym that would meet your needs and then the city lease that space back?” asked Bird.
Fadness said it has long been the tradition of the District to make space available in its facilities for Park and Rec indoor activities.
Haluska added the middle school has a multi-purpose room available, and the high school has a beautiful new consumer science room as well. Both could potentially be used for Park and Rec activities.
“I’m not sure we would have to have new space in a building to accommodate those kinds of classes,” said Haluska.
Kerndt said he views the biggest community need as additional gym space, but said the problem comes with giving up the current softball field to do it.
“We’re trying to figure out some kind of balance. The biggest thing is how could we come up with a way the public is going to vote and say ‘We want this,’” said Kerndt.
“I think the biggest hiccup in the whole thing is where do we put our softball field. I wouldn’t feel bad giving it up if we had a place to go.”
Additional discussion was had regarding the circumstances that would surround each entity holding a bond referendum, and if it might work to hold one together.
Haluska said based on recent legislative action, there is no time that coincides for the city and District to have a joint referendum.
“It’s inescapable. We simply can’t run a referendum at the same time,” said Haluska.
Bird explained from a legal standpoint, the soonest the District could hold a referendum would be September, and the city could follow in November.
“One could fail and one could pass. What are the contingencies? What if the school’s should be successful and the city’s fail?” asked Bird.
A true need?
Park-Rec Board Member Shirley Vermace next asked what the current basic needs are for Park and Rec.
“The need comes from the community wanting to have more access to gym space. The School District provides the bare bones for what we need to operate,” said Park-Rec Director Andy Nimrod.
“I don’t think there is any doubt that Decorah could use more gym space,” said Nimrod.
Vermace next said if the school could ask for a bond issue that would include additional gym space, she is not sure the city really needs a walking track.
“I have a membership at Luther for a walking track. I’m not sure there is a need in the community,” she said, adding none of the other fitness centers in town are full to capacity either.
Estimates indicate the property tax asking would be approximately $2.50 per $1,000 of taxable valuation, and families would have to pay $400 - $600 per year to access the community center.
Mayor Don Arendt asked if the District was perhaps on a “forced timeline” because of current talks with North Winneshiek about the possibility of future consolidation.
“We are operating on a timeline with the assumption of decisions that have not been made,” said Haluska.
Board Member Brian Petersburg added the District “can’t put all of our eggs in one basket.”
Rustad said the best-case scenario is to look toward the future.
Fadness added, “Anything we would build would address long-term District growth.”
“We’re certainly not planning for a quick Band-aid. Space needs are going to be paramount to any project we’re going to consider,” said Fadness.
Park-Rec Board Member Cindy Albers said, “I think it would be interesting to find out what is this community willing to support and what are they willing to pay for.”
Bird said the Council has already directed staff to put together a communitywide survey, which will go out by the end of June.
“Everybody wants this, but how do we pay for it?” asked Council Member Bill Wagner.
In conclusion, Bird asked if all present were comfortable with representatives from each entity continuing to meet with the goal of having another large-group meeting in the near future.
Everyone agreed they were.
“We are certainly willing to explore a partnership and see where the discussion will lead … there seem like more questions than answers,” said Fadness.