Park district exhausts funds on fields project

The Vashon Park District, struggling to cover the costs of its ambitious fields project, has run out of cash for the remainder of the year and might have to borrow money from King County to cover its final 2011 expenses.

The district has enough money in the bank to cover its last payroll of the year, said Jan Milligan, the district’s newly hired executive director. But other expenses are not covered, nor does the small park district have any funds left in its operating reserve. That account, Milligan said, was emptied earlier this year to help pay construction costs at the new fields complex north of town.

The district will get out of this financial bind, Milligan said, but it will likely take a few years.

“It’s put us in a really tight spot operationally, but we’ll get through it,” she said during an interview last week.

Should the district borrow money from King County, it would be a first for the small public agency, she added. “I hope we never have to do it again,” she said.

Milligan’s comments came after a meeting last Tuesday night with the district’s commissioners, where she and Cynthia Pringle, the park district’s business manager, told the elected board that the district was out of cash and will likely need to carry a $125,000 deficit from 2011 into the 2012 budget.

“The only way to make it up is through some really aggressive fundraising over the next two months,” Milligan told the commissioners, adding that she was hoping to see some leadership gifts from the five-member board.

The park district’s board is poised to pass a $1.7 million annual budget — one that keeps in place several popular programs, a scholarship fund to help reduce class fees and a swimming pool that continues to run at a sizable deficit. Wages for the 11-member staff will again be frozen — for the third year in a row.

But the real budget buster, Milligan said, has been the fields project — a $1.7 million to $1.9 million effort to build a complex for soccer, baseball and lacrosse that sports enthusiasts say is much needed on the Island. The project is not over-budget, Milligan said, but donations have fallen far short of projections. The park district announced a $300,000 private fundraising campaign last year. So far, it’s raised about $165,000, Milligan said.

The commissioners, determined to keep the project moving forward, decided to use the district’s 2011 operating reserve of $107,000 as well as some of its operating budget to fund the project this year. It also took out a $400,000 loan that the district will have to pay back at $96,000 a year over the course of five years.

LuAnn Branch, the park district’s board chair, said none of the commissioners were happy about using the district’s reserve to finance the project, nor are they happy about the district’s financial status.

“We’re not OK with this situation. I want to be clear about that,” she said.

At the same time, she added, the board knew all along that if fundraising didn’t meet expectations they’d likely have to use reserves to backfill. “It’s not like we’re doing this willy-nilly,” she said.

Bill Ameling, another commissioner, said the district is facing what he called a cash-flow problem due to the fields project. “It’s made it tough. It’s made it tight.” But he, too, stressed that the district will be able to get through this with careful fiscal management.

“To say I’m not concerned is not true. But it’s perfectly workable and manageable,” he said.

Commissioners noted that the fields project got off the ground while the region was deep into a recession — one that has lingered far longer than many expected. Several property owners owe the district money because of delinquent property taxes, Ameling noted; all told, the district is owed about $80,000 in what he called “receivables” from property owners. What’s more, the Vashon Island School District, facing a sizable deficit that could have affected core programs, began aggressively fundraising just as the park district’s campaign was entering full swing, making the park district’s effort more challenging.

But the situation is not nearly as bad as those that have grabbed newspaper headlines in other parts of the country, Ameling added. “We’re not going to default on bonds or lay off half our workers,” he said.

What’s more,  the project will provide quality fields that will serve the community for years. “This is a project that was long desired,” he said.

Milligan, for her part, said she’s not critical of the board for making some of the decisions that it did. “I don’t want to fault them,” she said. “They saw a need to do this project. … When it came to the fields, they were ambitious and aggressive.”

As a result, she said, the crews that worked on the fields complex this summer wrapped up their work earlier this year with the project in good shape. All the earthwork has been completed and the grass is planted. And even without much additional work, the fields should be ready for soccer players by next fall, said Tom Ossinger, the project manager.

“What needed to be done to make the fields usable next year has been done,” Milligan said.

The park district budgeted about $1.65 million worth of work for this first phase — and about $1.3 million of it was completed and paid for, Ossinger said. Some infrastructure still needs to be completed, such as installing the permanent electrical service to the site, building fencing and installing pavers for the plaza area. The second phase — which includes the installation of high-end lights and restrooms — has yet to be funded.

“The problem is going forward,” Ossinger said. “Until the money is raised, we won’t be able to finish everything out.”

The district needs about $500,000 to finish the project, although much of that could come in the way of donated labor or supplies, Milligan said. Milligan, who came on board two months ago, has a background in the nonprofit sector, a background that she hopes she’ll be able to put to good use in the next several months. Indeed, she said, she’s devoting the lion’s share of her time over the next several weeks to aggressively fundraising.

“It’s an opportunity to finish a really cool project,” she said. “I’m a fix-it kind of gal. And I’m determined that we can do it.”


Pool continues to cost the park district money

The Vashon Pool, handed over to the Vashon Park District by King County in 2009, continues to command a sizeable subsidy.

When the park district decided to take on the pool, officials and commissioners said at the time they hoped the park district could run it efficiently enough so that it broke even — or nearly so. Since then, the district has used up the $75,000 subsidy it received from the county to take it on and has seen an operating deficit of around $50,000. The park district projects the pool will cost the district $49,245 in 2012.

Jan Milligan, the park district’s new director, said she’s not surprised by the numbers. All pools cost money, she noted, adding that she believes those initial estimates of a cost-neutral pool were based on inaccurate information from the county.

“The district benchmarked it as best they could. Unfortunately, they were way off,” she said.

But Milligan and board members said the pool continues to be a huge asset for the community.

“The community’s overjoyed that we have our own pool,” said LuAnn Branch, who chairs the park board.

Milligan, meanwhile, is working with Branch and other champions of the pool to figure out ways to increase its revenue. The group, which met recently, came up with dozens of ideas, Milligan said, from scuba diving lessons and water basketball to teen nights and aquatic Olympics.

“We’re not nearly at capacity,” Milligan said. “There’s lots of room to grow.”


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