Park district faces a deficit; could shut its doors for four months

Vashon Island Fire & Rescue will see slightly less tax revenue next year but will still meet its operational needs and complete some needed projects, while pushing less important budget items into 2014.

The Vashon Park District board held an emergency meeting Monday to decide if it should seek a $300,000 loan from King County after the park district’s latest figures showed the agency is poised to end the year $57,000 in the hole.

But during the often tense meeting, which included some strongly worded exchanges between Board Chair Bill Ameling and Board Member David Hackett, the four-member commission deadlocked on the proposal, a tie vote that meant the measure failed to pass. Without a cash infusion, Ameling warned, the park district faces an uncertain future, including a possible closure for the first four months of 2013.

Before the vote was taken, Ameling looked at his three colleagues and said, “You could be voting to shut us down for four months.”

But Hackett said he’d support the measure only if it were amended to include a two-week, end-of-the-year furlough for the park district’s staff, an effort, he said, to bring some discipline to the district’s spending. When that failed to get a majority, he and Commissioner Joe Wald voted against the loan request; Ameling and Lu-Ann Branch voted to approve it.

The emergency meeting was called Sunday after interim Executive Director Susan McCabe, at Ameling’s instruction, contacted the other three board members and asked them to stop into the office on Sunday and sign a resolution seeking the county loan. The loan application was due Monday morning. McCabe and Ameling decided to seek the loan Friday after the latest cash projections showed the district would not end the year in the black, as previously stated, but in the hole.

But Hackett, when he got the call Sunday, told McCabe that board resolutions have to be passed during public meetings. With the clock ticking for the loan, McCabe called the meeting for Monday night, the soonest possible under state open meeting laws, submitted the district’s application for the loan and got permission from the county to amend the application with a signed resolution Tuesday morning.

At Monday night’s meeting, however, Hackett and Wald balked, saying they were dismayed by the latest cash projections. In October, the park district’s spreadsheet showed the agency stood to end the year $14,000 in the black. Sounding frustrated, Hackett said shifting numbers “keep happening and happening.”

“The numbers we get aren’t worth the paper they’re printed on,” he said. “Frankly, I can’t believe any numbers I see anymore.”

At another point, Hackett said he was “flabbergasted” by the latest financial reports. “As a board member, I don’t feel like I’m getting straight information.”

But Ameling said it was wrong to suggest staff had failed to provide accurate figures. The problem, he said, rested with the board, which opted to continue spending on its fields project next to The Harbor School even when it became clear that the agency was facing a potential shortfall.

“The reason we’re here is because we did not do our proper homework … when we started the fields project,” he said. “This board approved moving ahead on the fields project on a lick and a prayer. … The reason we’re in a hole right now is because of the board.”

Ameling, meanwhile, said he was also seeking a line of credit from U.S. Bank that would enable the district to meet its payroll and other financial obligations and keep its doors open. But if that doesn’t come through — or if the commission rejects that idea as well — the district will have no choice but to shut its doors from January to April, closing the parks, shutting down the office and ceasing all operations, he said.

What’s more, without a cash infusion, the park district won’t be able to pay its current debt with Cashmere Bank, a $410,000 note due Dec. 31, placing the agency “in a technical default” and jeopardizing its ability to borrow money in the future, he said.

“We can be upset. We can be galled. But we got ourselves into this mess, and now we have to get ourselves out,” Ameling said.

According to McCabe and Marie Browne, the district’s part-time accountant, the district found its cash position was weaker than they had realized because of a failure to account for one of the payrolls in the cash projections. The district has also faced some unexpected costs, such as a $10,000 bill for a state audit, and less revenue in property tax receipts.

But Hackett said the district’s financial problems stem in part from the agency’s inability to follow resolutions passed by the board. In October, for instance, the board agreed to furlough employees one day a week if needed to balance the books, a move that never happened. What’s more, Hackett said, Ameling recently told McCabe she could hire an employee to fill in for someone who’s injured, even though a hiring freeze is in place.

“In my opinion, these kinds of boards have zero discipline,” he said after the meeting. “We have to be adults. We have to live within our means.”

Ameling, for his part, said after the meeting that he thinks a line of credit from U.S. Bank will give the district the room it needs to set itself on a fiscally solid course. But some commissioners aren’t comfortable with that approach, he added, noting that everyone has a different style.

“There’s no right or wrong here,” he said. “You just do what you have to do.”