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Glog – Report on Feb 12 council gym discussion

Glog – Report on Feb 12 council gym discussion

Dear Readers,

Your Gilbert is presenting guest blogger Seth Grimes’ report on the most recent Takoma Park City Council meeting. We will post our own report soon so you, Dear Readers, can have hours of fun playing Contrast and Compare!

- Gilbert

The gym decision, especially as relating to city finances and property taxes, is an important city issue. It is on a par with development (Old Takoma, New Hampshire Avenue, and Flower Avenue), with crime and public safety, and with health services, noting WAH’s planned withdrawal from Takoma Park.

A Takoma Park City Council’s February 12 work session discussed findings of last weekend’s two gym forums and other expressions of public views. You can view the session on-line .

Staffer Suzanne Ludlow described the forums and the 70 e-mail messages and phone calls received prior to the council meeting. She expressed regret that only 16 residents attended the first session and 36 the second. She presented a compilation of questionnaire, e-mail, and phone findings. The vast majority were homeowner responses. “The demographic of the participants was not reflective of the Takoma Park community.”

Ms Ludlow reported “There were more people registering opposition to the gym than there were supporters of the gym.”

She did not provide broken-out numbers, which may have been in the council packet, but she did report the location views of 26 people who supported a gym in some form, suggesting 26 supporting views out of 70 e-mail messages and 52 program attendees overall.

Ms Ludlow reported that those who responded favor including restrooms and that staff recommends including an office and waiting area. One technical point on finances: the city would be required to put a 100% match of state bond funding, not a 50% match as was stated at the council meeting.

Community Center Liaison Committee Chair Howard Kohn then spoke. He addressed which gym option was most desirable in the committee’s view and responded to questions about the earlier site-selection process. He did not acknowledge, nor of course respond to, the majority opposition expressed in the last week as reported by Ms Ludlow.

Mayor Kathy Porter noted that policy questions were not discussed at the workshops. She said that she got many questions about timing; she explained that timing is driven by the state budget cycle and that “building costs are only going to go up” and that “our chances of getting state money will be better this year than in future years.”

Mayor Porter said she would ask the council to put together a “continued public participation process.”

Council Member Terry Seamens (Ward 4) “disclosed” that he supports the gym and disagrees with the committee, that he wants to see the full facility. He has received phone calls and e-mail showing there are “a lot of other opinions in the city” although he has heard opposition to raising taxes,opposition to borrowing money, and questions whether we need a gym in addition to strong support from residents of his ward and others.

Mr. Seamens observed that as a community “we’re not very integrated even if we’re very diverse” and that the gym has become a divisive issue. “How can we do this in a way that builds the confidence in the community that we know what we’re doing?” He suggested taking a step back to look at goals and how best to meet them in a “much more organized” approach to exploring alternatives and finances.

Council Member Joy Austin-Lane asked Howard Kohn if the CC Liaison Committee has considered the possibility of a referendum on the gym.[Sustainable Takoma obtained and presented to the council 285 signatures on a 2005 petition calling for a gym bonding referendum. See http://sustainabletakoma.org/NoBadBonds.html .] Mr. Kohn responded that “the idea has never come up.”

Ms Austin-Lane observed that the city property-tax rate is now higher than the county’s.

Council Member Doug Barry observed that “we as a council have perhaps failed to make this case as clearly as we need to make it” and he suggested attempting to quantify need. He observed that the community does not share the council’s trust in city competency to conduct a project of this nature. And he discussed a third point, what we can afford,people’s concerns about [other] unmet needs, about the need to step up pursuit of a tax-duplication rebate increase and other funding sources in Annapolis and at the county level.

Council Member Colleen Clay discussed city changes in the past year: concern about property taxes, a tremendous increase in the cost of utilities, a crime wave. She related, reluctantly given her personal support for a gym, that “by a more than 2 to 1 ratio, the people in my ward who responded to me have said they don’t want to build a gymnasium in the city.” The crux of the problem is lack of public trust. She restated this point 5-6 times. “Ultimately we could have a gymnasium, but not with the process we’re going about right now.”

Addressing the lack of public trust, Ms Clay recommended that “we need a written report to the community on what happened with the community center,” also reporting on storm water issues, more precise cost numbers that provoke more confidence, a better alternatives analysis, a commitment to energy efficiency. She recommended conducting the survey on services[that the council voted in 2004] and putting the gym on the ballot.

Council Member Bruce Williams observed about the public comment opportunities that “from some of them there was overwhelming support and… from some of them there was overwhelming against.” His recommendation focuses on pulling together information to make it easier to make the case. He reinforced views expressed by Mayor Porter, Howard Kohn, and others that now is the time to go forward with funding requests. He stated that the best, fairest, and cheapest way to proceed with the project will be to borrow.

Mr. Williams’ prescription: to proceed with making the case presentation and pursuing funds. He seems clear in his mind that opposition can be sufficiently overcome by improved advocacy. He would consider a fall ballot referendum if there would be “a much tighter proposal to present.”

Council Member Reuben Snipper related that in his recent campaign, people in his ward told him that the want a gym, an affordable gym. He would have the city use the coming weeks to get information out and continue trying to make the case.

There was much, much more in the course of the meeting, about use of county facilities, about the fire station, about facility and program management, about related issues such as expansion of Takoma Park Elementary School, and so on, but nothing revelatory.

Mayor Porter summed up by concluding council consensus to move forward with “the next step,” that there should be a compilation and repackaging of explanatory information. She advocated “a more formal needs assessment.” She acknowledged comments about lack of public confidence by expressing support our “new” city manager [Barb Matthews, who started herein July 2005.] She did not address steps to build confidence in council leadership and oversight.

After other discussion, there were questions for Ms Ludlow about the timing of state-funding requests. Balancing the city’s having a relatively clear statement of funding needs is a concern that lack of community consensus could undercut legislative support for needed funding.

City Manager Barb Matthews proposed one financing option: to use Washington Adventist Hospital’s pledged $150,000/year, five-year contribution for bond repayments, increasing the borrowing need but deferring the financial impact on the community.

Per Mayor Porter concluded that the city will in coming weeks 1) move forward with the funding requests and get information from the state how much could be expected from a bond bill; 2) pull together “making the case” information; and 3) create a public participation plan.

Ms Ludlow pressed for direction on state required financing documentation and a response to the county council’s challenge to provide information on what would be built, when, how much it would cost, and use policy for county residents. In response, noting a $6 million commitment implied by the $3 million state bond bill’s 100% matching requirement, Mayor Porter said we would proceed with this “funding fiction.” We would go to the county with a specific funding request once we learn how much we can expect from the state.

Seth Grimes

About the author: Gilbert

Gilbert is the pseudonym of a hard-bitten, hard-drinking, long-time Takoma Park resident who maintains the granolapark blog. Gilbert and William L. Brown — Granola Park's mild-mannered chief of staff, researcher, and drink pourer — have never been seen in the same place at the same time.

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