Several islanders voiced concern on Saturday about the mounting costs of the Vashon Park District’s fields project and urged island sports groups to play a larger role in shouldering the financial burden.
At Saturday’s meeting, a special three-hour gathering to try to find a way to complete the ambitious complex north of town, Truman O’Brien, a former park district commissioner, noted that other capital projects the agency took on over the years were driven largely by user groups and financed by community and individual contributions and grants.
According to his analysis, he told the group at the Ober Park meeting room, park district funds covered between 5 to 35 percent of the costs of the agency’s previous projects, from the Jensen Point Boathouse to the Paradise Ridge Park horse arena. The escalating tab for the fields project, on the other hand, has largely been picked up by the park district, he said, which to date has used levy dollars to cover about 65 percent of the project’s costs.
Those expenditures, he and others said, have taken a toll on the small agency.
“Let’s quit spending levy dollars on this. … We’ve cut back on a lot of our programs to fund this project. Let’s not keep this going,” he said at the meeting, attended by three of the five park district commissioners and about 35 community members.
Others concurred. “I’d write a check for $100 tomorrow if I see (the users) write a check,” said John Candy, noting that he doesn’t have any school-age children or grandchildren on Vashon. “It’s an investment for them and their children and they need to step forward.”
Some at the meeting also voiced surprise by the news that the park district had re-hired its former site superintendent to oversee construction at the project, a move that was made last week without public notice and that comes on the heels of several layoffs at the cash-strapped agency.
The fact that Mike Mattingly, a finalist for the park district’s general manager position, had just been hired surfaced after islander Hilary Emmer asked him during the meeting if he were an employee.
Board chair Joe Wald answered that he was an employee; Elaine Ott, the agency’s newly hired general manager, said he was a contract worker. His wage is $42.50 an hour; it includes no benefits.
“I don’t remember any vote,” Emmer said. “This seems pretty loose.”
Wald responded that the board asked him to move forward on the project and hiring a site superintendent was necessary to get the project going again.
Much of the meeting — which was facilitated by Craig Beles, a lawyer and experienced facilitator — focused on clarifying what has been done to date at the fields project and what still remains to be completed by June 30 to secure $150,000 in two state grants.
All told, Wald estimated, the park district has to finish about $190,000 in work to get the project to a point where those state funds could be released. The park district has budgeted $95,000 for the fields project in its 2013 budget. The remaining funds, Wald said, would have to be donated.
According to numbers provided by Emmer, who said she spent several hours with Ott poring over spreadsheets to come up with the figures, the project has so far cost close to $1.7 million, with $400,000 of that coming from a non-voter approved bond and $831,852 from the park district’s levy funds.
The fields project was slated to cost $1.12 million, with $115,000 coming from the park district and $300,000 from donations. So far, the district has received $142,000 in donations, according to Emmer’s figures.
Representatives from Vashon Youth Baseball & Softball, meanwhile, said they’re willing to resume work on the project once other steps have been taken. They’ve already raised funds and agreed to cover some of the project’s costs, said Scott Hitchcock, a member of the youth baseball board. Once the concrete gets poured, baseball parents will take on another significant piece and build the dugouts, he said.
“We’ll do what we can,” Hitchcock said. “But there are a lot of things that have to happen first.”
Andy Davis, a soccer coach representing Vashon’s soccer club, said the club has already done a considerable amount of fundraising and will do more. “I’m sure we see this as one of our highest priorities,” he said.
Charlie Krimmert, president of the Vashon Lacrosse Club, also pledged support. “We’re in the game. We want to help.”
But after the meeting, several people said they were frustrated by what they saw as few accomplishments or clear next steps as a result of the gathering. No fundraising commitments were made, some attendees noted, and no volunteers actually stepped forward. Large volunteer sign-up sheets posted at the back of the room remained blank as the meeting broke up.
“Nothing came of it. Nothing happened. No one signed up to do anything. And we still don’t have any cash flow,” Emmer, who’s part of a small watchdog group examining the park district’s finances, said after the meeting.
O’Brien, who is also a part of the citizens’ group, expressed similar frustrations. Mattingly, O’Brien noted, was site superintendent when costs escalated and when the park district failed to comply with state laws governing a public works project, according to a draft audit the state issued two weeks ago.
“It appears to me they’re just going in and doing exactly what they did before. … They’re having the same guy who did it step back in. … Something’s wrong here,” O’Brien said.
But John Hopkins, the newest member of the commission and the board member who organized the public meeting, said he believed the park district made some progress Saturday.
The gathering, he said, was “a big step in rebuilding our credibility.”