The Vashon Park District is nearing a significant milestone with its athletic fields project north of town, as work that a state funding agency required is expected to be completed soon and will close a chapter in the long-running project.
The Washington State Recreation and Conservation Office (RCO) awarded two significant grants to the district more than four years ago for the construction of an athletic fields complex by The Harbor School, and this spring, after the district asked for more time to complete some of the work required for the grant money, RCO officials expressed reservations about extending their June 30 deadline.
However, the RCO board approved the extension without discussion last week, according to Laura Moxham, a grants manager with the state program.
“We would like to see a viable recreational unit,” Moxham said. “That is the ultimate goal.”
Considerable work has taken place at the fields in recent months, thanks in part to an extensive volunteer effort, said Mike Mattingly, the site supervisor. Community volunteers, many from island sports teams, have provided more than 1,200 volunteer hours at the project since this spring, according to Elaine Ott, the district’s general manager. Now some teams are playing on the fields, and other kids are gathering there to play on their own.
The project — newly marked with a VES Fields sign — has been a controversial one, with many islanders saying they understand the need for more fields but are disturbed about the cost of the project and the way the district has managed it. When the district kicked off a fundraising campaign in 2010 with the expectation the fields would open in summer of 2011, the project was slated to cost $1.1 million, according to park documents. Those costs have now risen to $1.7 million, Ott said, and she anticipates that as work continues, the figure will rise to more than $1.8 million by the end of the year.
Also troubling to some who follow the district closely is the increased cost to taxpayers. Park district documents indicate the portion of the project covered by tax dollars was initially slated to be $125,000; now it exceeds $1 million, according to Ott.
This increase drew strong words from Truman O’Brien, who served on the Vashon Park District board for eight years.
“It infuriates me,” he said. “They’re virtually destroying the Vashon Park District for this project.”
David Hackett, the treasurer of the Vashon Park District and a member of a group that envisioned the fields a decade ago, recently acknowledged the problems that accompanied the project but expressed his continued support for it and his appreciation for progress at the fields.
“I feel great,” he said. “This will serve generations of islanders. We already see kids and adults up there playing. Over time, the field will prove itself.”
Hackett said that the increase in the project’s cost was due in part to design problems, inaccurate price estimates, unanticipated legal and regulatory hurdles and a lack of experience on the part of the small agency in administering large projects. He also noted that before construction ever began, the $1.1 million figure was deemed too low, and the board adopted a $1.5 million plan.
Janet Quimby, who chairs the Oversight Committee, which formed this spring to provide expert advice to the park district on the construction of the new fields, noted that one of the committee’s goals is to establish good internal controls so that mistakes that were made are not repeated. She said she believes progress has been made on that count and also noted that the Oversight Committee is dedicated to seeing that the fields are now maintained and that the investment the district and the public have made in the project is protected.
District officials agree that maintaining the fields is essential, and Ott said they’re now in the midst of determining how much field maintenance will cost. The fields are sand-based, she noted, and will require considerable water and fertilizer. Mattingly said he speculated mowing and other field care at the site could occupy a three-quarter time staff person for much of the year.
“It will certainly require a re-focus,” he said.
Vashon Island Soccer Club President Hans Van Dusen said that despite the project’s past challenges and those that he expects are still ahead, the club welcomes the fields complex.
“The soccer club thinks the project is a vital asset for any sports activities on the island,” he said.
He noted that the island’s other fields — all grass and subject to damage from overuse — will also benefit, as the new fields have already begun to relieve them from too much activity.
At the district, both Ott and Hackett say they feel the agency is on its way to recovery. Current projections are that the district will end the year with its bills paid and in the black, which Hackett called a tremendous accomplishment for Ott and the board. Finances are still tight now, however, and to help tide the district over, Ott recently secured a tax anticipation note (TAN) in the form of a $400,000 line of credit to draw from this summer and fall. This practice drew criticism last year from county treasurer Scott Matheson as well as Ron Olson, the director of municipal services for Cashmere Valley Bank, which had provided the park district with TANs in previous years.
Matheson reiterated his concerns last week, saying that relying on TANs raises concerns about whether a district has sufficient revenue to play its bills. Also, he said, if a district seeks a TAN regularly, it may run the risk that no institution will be willing to provide it funds, leaving the district in a difficult spot.
He added that while the practice has become commonplace on Vashon, it is not the norm for other districts.
“It’s not common for any type of district to (rely on) TANs on a regular basis,” he said.
Ott, however, said that it is not uncommon in the business world to use a line of credit, and noted that she anticipates drawing $107,000 to help the district meet its obligations until it receives its property tax payment in November, when she will repay the loan.
Overall, Ott said, she believes the district has turned a corner.
“I am quite confident we’re going to be on budget and end the year with $60,000,” she said. “I believe we are on our way back to solid footing.”