The Kenai City Council put a contentious issue to rest Wednesday night when it approved a partnership agreement between the city and Boys and Girls Clubs of the Kenai Peninsula that transfers the responsibility of operating the Kenai Recreation Center from the city to the club.
The change is scheduled to go into effect July 1, provided the council approves its proposed budget with the partnership included.
Council members Jim Bookey, Joe Moore and Pat Porter and Kenai Mayor John Williams voted in favor of the partnership. Council members Amy Jackman and John "Ozzie" Osborne voted against it. Council member Linda Swarner was absent.
In past council meetings, council work sessions and Parks and Recreation Commission meetings on the subject, the partnership proposal has drawn intense opposition from some rec center users and employees and commission members.
At a special commission meeting held May 15, the commission voted four to one (with two members absent) to recommend that the council not approve the partnership.
"We just did our best and we did what we thought was right (in voting against approving the partnership), so hopefully the council could understand why we're taking this stand," said Parks and Recreation Commission chair Tim Wisniewski. "We're not trying to be difficult, we're just trying to make a responsible decision."
The Friends of the Kenai Recreation Center group, formed in opposition of the partnership proposal, presented the council with a 455-signature petition requesting it pursue other options for operating the center at the council's May 7 meeting. Members of the group have spoken against the proposal at every public meeting regarding the issue.
After the council's vote, members of the group said the council members that voted for the partnership had ignored them and the commission members who had spoken and voted against the proposal.
"Their minds were made up from the very beginning," said Kristine Schmidt of Kenai.
Williams responded that it wasn't that the council wasn't listening to the testimony against the proposal, but that it considered more than that in its decision.
"The (rec center partnership) cannot be looked at as a single issue," he said. "It must be looked at as part of the larger issue, in the context of the whole budget."
He cited other financial matters impacting the city's budget, including how cuts to the state's budget will negatively affect the city's finances, that people who don't regularly attend council meetings may not be aware of.
Opponents have voiced several points of contention with the partnership, including the city should have considered other options for running the rec center and turned to the club partnership as a last resort. Most of the options suggested by the Friends group and commission members involve the city continuing to operate the rec center.
Some suggestions for how to pay for this include forming a recreation service area to levy property taxes or raising the city's mill rate while increasing user fees at the center and investigating cuts in the city's parks and recreation budget.
The Friends also suggested going with the administration's proposed budget for the rec center if the club partnership is not approved, which would cut rec center jobs, reduce the hours and days of the center's operation and cut money from the rec center's snack bar budget and the beautification budget and eliminate the wellness program.
If the city did choose to have a private contractor operate the center, the Friends suggested the city select that contractor through a competitive bid process.
The city's administration has responded to several of these suggestions.
City Manager Linda Snow said when selecting a contractor to run a city facility, the city seeks out whoever it thinks is best for the job, rather than selecting someone through a competitive bid process.
As for forming a recreation service area for the city, City Attorney Carey Graves said the city does not have the power to do that. The Kenai Peninsula Borough could do so, if the council gave up its recreation powers and either it approved the measure by passing an ordinance or if the majority of voters in the proposed service area approved it.
Snow said the city's administration favored the partnership option because it stood the best chance of saving the city money while maintaining the same level of services currently offered at the rec center.
Opponents of the proposal questioned whether that will be the case. The partnership proposal states the club "will maintain public use services through the Recreation Center," and that it will make it a priority to provide services currently offered at the center, like open gym time, toddler time and use of the weight room and sauna.
To the Friends group, that wording sounds like the club has free reign to change its mind on what services it offers.
Peter Micciche, president of the club's board of directors, said the club guarantees to continue the type of services currently offered at the rec center for the length of the partnership contract, which is three years unless it is extended after three years or terminated before then.
The club is required to present the city with an operating plan for the center including hours and days of operation, a fee schedule and a program schedule by Nov. 15 each year. Micciche said the services the club will offer at the center will not be up for change at that point, just the hours of operation and fee schedules.
"We guarantee the traditional use (of the facility) as far as the services themselves, and we hope to continue the hours and cost of those services," he said.
The Friends group also challenges the city's statement that the partnership with the club will save the city money. Some confusion has arisen over the issue. According to Snow, the city did a financial analysis of the rec center budget, which showed it could save $87,000 if it partnered with the club and had them run the center. The proposal states the city will pay the club $125,000 each year for their services, will continue to pay the utility, maintenance and repair costs for the facility and will no longer collect the revenue from fees and rentals of the center. Snow said the $87,000 estimate is what the city expects to save after those costs and losses in revenue are factored in.
Now that the council has voted on the matter, the city and club will work on transitioning the operation of the center. Snow, Micciche and Williams said they are looking forward to the change and believe it will be good for the community as a whole.
The Friends group is not so sure of that, and plans to file a referendum petition to reverse the vote.
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