BP Picnic July 17, 2014

Thoughts on Proposition A and Rolla's Parks and Recreational Facilities

submitted for Rolla city council workshop

Two tax propositions in recent years (2011, 2014) for parks and recreation have failed: The first (2011) by a two-to-one margin; the second (2014) by 4%. In both cases opposition centered around "promises" broken. Instead of discussing these issues honestly; the city has adopted the line: Well, they weren't really promises, they were goals, and due to circumstances beyond our control, we haven't been able to meet our goals. In order to get beyond the issue of whether or not the city made promises, and to what extent they should be held to their promises, I will simply call them "deceptions." I don't think anyone could reasonably argue with the word, deception; and it allows me to include some important events that did not become campaign issues.

Three Deceptions
Campaign statements against the 2014 Proposition A centered around three issues, all of which are discussed in R.D. Hohenfeldt's April 5 editorial: Why I will vote against Prop A. Also see Citizens for Tax Justice website.

The Centre would have a 100 percent recapture rate:

The city led the voters to believe that within 15 years, the Centre would at least split even. It's not even close. Income falls way short of expenditures. (Incidentally, I proposed in 1998 that this "goal" was unattainable and a much more appropriate goal would be to supply the best recreational opportunities possible to the greatest number of people. I was ridiculed and ignored.)

The Centre would not compete with private health clubs:

Rolla's private health clubs were led to believe that the Centre would not install exercise equipment that would compete with local health clubs. The Centre has had such equipment since opening day and continues to have it. Clearly the private health clubs were deceived and clearly there was an intention to deceive. (Incidentally, I was against making such a ridiculous promise; but administrators will say anything if they think it will get them the votes they want.)

Centre prices would be affordable for all; and scholarships would be available to needy families:

Centre membership is prohibitive for low-income families and available scholarships do not even begin to cover the need. (I was in favor of offering reduced rate memberships based on need; but those who wanted the "private sector" to handle scholarships won the day. Last I heard the Rec. Fund (aka the Recreation for Everyone Foundation) was giving out 35 to 40 partial scholarships annually with no significant attempt to assess the needs of the applicants. This does not even begin to cover need. Many families can't even afford membership at reduced prices.
Other Deceptions

In the 1980's there was a movement to bring the YMCA to Rolla to build a recreational facility like the Centre. The city never supported the effort, claiming that it could build and run a recreational facility better than an organization like the YMCA that has successfully built and operated many such facilities. I suspect they were deceiving themselves as well as the public. (I suggested during the 2011 campaign that the city consider turning over the operation of the Centre to the YMCA. I believe this suggestion was summarily ignored. )

Buehler Park: (http://buehlerpark.org)

In 1997, the city broke faith with current park users and the deceased individuals who had given Buehler Park to the city in 1958 "for park purposes only and none other ... FOREVER." Only by spending tens of thousands of dollars were concerned citizens able to prevent the city from selling Buehler Park. It took 11 long years to win a court order enjoining the city from "taking action inconsistent with [Buehler Park's] use as a public park."

The city is still trying to find a way to alienate Buehler Park. The latest attempt was a proposal to build an animal shelter in Buehler Park. A motion by council member Sue Eudaly to not consider Buehler Park as a location for an animal shelter died for lack of a second with one council member (Tony Bahr) remarking that we should never say never.

A new tax is necessary because no other money is available for parks and recreation:

Not true. There are at least two available sources:

1. Lodging Tax: around $250,000 annually. This tax revenue must be spent to promote tourism. 90% is given to the Rolla Area Chamber of Commerce. None of this money goes to the Centre or to Parks and Recreation in spite of their obvious and documented role in bringing tourists and other people to Rolla.

2. Rolla Regional Economic Commission: around $100,000 annually. The city was supposed to stop funding RREC after 5 years if it did not succeed in bringing jobs to Rolla. It has now been around 10 years and RREC has not brought a single industry to Rolla, although they will gladly tell you of all the jobs they will bring to us if we just keep funding them. Rolla has lost jobs and is still funding RREC.

If the city diverted these pork-barrel items to parks and recreation, they might cover the Centre deficit and allow for some park improvement.

If Prop A passed in 2014, tax money would be used totally for parks and recreation:

According to the ballot language, 1/2 the tax for 8 years would be used for "capital maintenance improvements in the park system." Election day had not even arrived when in an obviously orchestrated exchange, mayor-to-be Lou Magdits asked city administrator John Butz if there was any "underutilized park land" available for a new animal shelter. Butz responded with Buehler Park and Murry Park as possible sites for an animal shelter. Neither Butz nor Magdits mentioned that neither one is underutilized parkland. The rest of council either didn't notice the bait and switch or didn't care to remark on it.

Butz, however, really let the cat out of the bag in an April 14 email when he wrote, "Personally I donít necessarily see a publicly run animal shelter as being an inconsistent use as a public park. Parks frequently have public structures, restrooms, concession stands, storage areas, senior facilities, rec centers, composting facilities and the like." In other words, had Prop A passed, those who voted money for park improvement might have seen their money used to destroy parks by building structures like animal shelters on them.

This was the most unkindest deception of all.
The city has offered the following excuses for the Centre's failure to break even.

The expected partnerships with PCRMC and S&T fell through:

Originally the city had planned to partner on the Centre with UMR (now Missouri S&T) and Phelps County Regional Medical Center. While I was not party to the negotiations, from the way the city has failed to keep faith with its constituents, I can well understand S&T and PCRMC choosing to build their own facilities rather than partner with the city.

No one could have predicted the economic downturn:

Economic downturns should be expected and planned for. They happen regularly.

No one could have predicted the rise in energy costs:

At the time of construction energy costs were already expected to rise. The city was advised (by me and many others) to build the Centre as energy efficient as possible. This advice was ignored. Later the city hired an expensive consultant to tell them how to save energy; but failure to build efficiently will continue to cost the city dearly.
Where's the accountability? One should expect that administrators who miss their target year after year by as much as the city has, would be replaced, or at least censored and expected to come up with a plan for doing better in the future. So why do we have the same old people still running the city of Rolla in the same old way? Where's the accountability?
A note on the 2014 Proposition A election campaign
The opposition to Prop. A appeared well organized and well funded. They designed an excellent graphic for their yard signs and website and a catchy slogan, "Prop A makes EVERYONE PAY for a few to play." Their letter-writing campaign boasted 11 letters to the editor which they have posted on their website, each one signed by a different person. The letters, while sticking to the main theme, tended to make different points in different ways.

The pro Prop. A forces seemed lackadaisical and disorganized. As far as I know I was the only one who responded substantively to the opposition's talking points. Yes for Parks and Rec didn't even have a website (although they do appear on facebook). Their logo was nondescript. The theme of a boring four minute video that played the same music over and over again appeared to be "Ain't we great, so give us money." They even had the chutzpah to include footage of Buehler Park in the video after trying for 11 years to sell it and then allowing it to continue to deteriorate over the next seven.

The pro Prop A forces were either overconfident or they figured that if Prop. A failed in 2014 they could let Rolla's parks and recreation facilities deteriorate some more and then ask for money again.
A personal note
I was active in the so-called "grassroots focus group" that worked on planning the Centre in 1998. It really was not a grassroots organization. To my knowledge we never elected officers. Bill Moorkamp firmly controlled the organization. With one or two minor exceptions (such as the frog slide by the pool) my input was ignored. I am a charter member of the Centre and have supported it consistently since its inception.

I am also a charter member of Citizens for the Preservation of Buehler Park and currently secretary, treasurer and webmaster. I was active in the fight to prevent the city from selling Buehler Park and have planted and cared for young trees in Buehler Park since the courts enjoined the city from "taking action inconsistent with [Buehler Park's] use as a public park" in 2007.

I publicly opposed Proposition A in 2011 but supported the scaled down version presented to the voters in 2014, naively believing that if Prop. A passed, much needed money would flow into our parks and recreation system. Apparently, in this case, the opposition was far wiser than I; and I owe them a vote of thanks.

When city administrator John Butz proposed putting an animal shelter in Buehler Park the day before the election, I felt a deep sense of betrayal. In hindsight, I should have known that something like this was waiting in the wings. Past behavior is the greatest predictor of future behavior. I apologize to everyone for supporting Proposition A.
I'd like to see the city start improving the park system now; and make some significant progress before asking for more money. I think the city owes it to their constituents; and as I documented above, there is money available. If and when they do ask for more money, I'd want to see a very specific list of uses. No more of this "capital maintenance improvements in the park system". We could end up with an animal shelter in the middle of a park instead of the expected playground equipment.

Above all, I'd like to see city officials stop deceiving the citizens who elect them and pay their salaries.