Woodland Park may reap the benefits of a $10-million-plus aquatic center and state-of-the-art amenities slated to open in early Oct. 2017.
However, one slight problem exists on the local pool front: The town government may go broke over incurring the expenses to fund the project, and may plunge into a sea of red ink; and worse of all, may not be able to meet payroll. In addition, key services may get cut to assure that residents and school kids can swim laps in their multi-million dollar aqua palace.
That’s the analysis of former finance director Kellie Case, who held the town’s financial ropes for 17 years and worked for three city managers. Case came out verbally swinging during a public comment session at last week’s council meeting.
Her bold comments didn’t generate any response by the council. However, the city’s head manager, David Buttery, is standing fully behind the fiscal actions taken by WP officials and leaders in supporting the aquatic center and other capital developments.
“I have become very alarmed,” said Case, who now works as a realtor with KellerWilliams, when addressing the council. “We cannot afford that swimming pool.”
Case criticized the financial management of the city, saying Woodland Park is headed for a fiscal disaster. More specifically, she said the city doesn’t have enough of a reserve fund and emergency allocations to deal with day-to-day operations.
For example, when she worked with the city previously, Case noted that the city had a $1.7 million balance, based on 2013 audited numbers. Now, she contended this has shrunk to a little more than $100,000 and only $65,000 in cash.
“That is critical,” said Case.
If this trend continues, the former finance chief, who left the city’s employment in the summer of 2014, argued that the Woodland Park government may not be able to meet payroll and that key services could get cut.
Case expressed disappointment in the fiscal policies of the current council and its management team. More importantly, she said these actions are destroying responsible actions taken by previous administrators to rein in expenses. According to Case, the city eliminated 13 positions during the administration of former City Manager Mark Fitzgerald, who served as the head city boss prior to David Buttery. Fitzgerald was the WP city manager from 1999 to 2006. She said the city made great strides in keeping its financial house in order, after it over-indulged in the 1990s. Case indicated that this same “lean and mean” fiscal philosophy was still adhered to during the recession period that confronted Woodland Park in 2008.
But in the last few years, she believes the city has gone astray financially. In a later interview, she cited over-inflated capital expenses as the main culprit, with no projects staying on budget.
“I just don’t understand why we have to do three major capital projects at one time. it just doesn’t make any sense,” said Case.
Besides the aquatic center, the city is currently doing a revamp of Memorial Park and recently completed a new fleet maintenance facility.
Case said her concerns have nothing to do with where the pool hub is located, but deal with incurring this amount of debt and putting the city at financial risk. Plus, she is bothered that aqua center proponents are begging residents for more money on a regular basis to complete the project.
Case says city officials and council members can expect to hear more from her during forthcoming budget sessions.
“I just can’t stay quiet any longer,” said the former finance chief. She stated that she became initially alarmed following a report by the auditors that revealed a huge decline in the town’s unrestricted fund balance. “I was shocked,” said Case, who said her first reaction was, “where did the $2 million go?” She wants the council to get more involved in scrutinizing the fiscal actions of its city manager.
City right on course
Buttery, in an interview last week, didn’t deny that the town doesn’t have nearly as much discretionary money as past years due to its pursuit of three major projects. But he stressed that voters voiced their strong support for the aquatic center project, approving a plan to allow the city to issue bonds for incurring about $20 million in debt to finance this effort and other capital ventures, by overwhelming support. He cited a vote margin of 70 to 30 percent in favor of the aquatic center development.
Buttery said he has tried to act as fiscally responsible as possible in managing the aquatic center project, citing his decision to kill original plans to construct the center in Woodland Station due to high infrastructure costs. If anything, he said leaders in the community wanted him to move quicker in facilitating the aquatic center. “I was under pressure to pull the trigger (on the aquatic center) three years ago,” said Buttery.
As for the figures presented by Case, he stated they aren’t quite as grim as depicted. Due to some monies not allocated in the proper funds areas, Buttery estimated the reserve fund balance at a little more than $600,000. He estimates this puts the city on par with its objective to have a fund balance equivalent to about 10 percent of its annual general fund budget.
Moreover, he stated that the city’s capital pursuits are following citizen demands. “I don’t regret doing these projects together. They are important for our community,” said the city manager.
He said council is aware that with the focus on these projects, the city won’t have much extra money. “They know we do not have a lot of discretionary funds. They believe in the projects,” said the city manager, in explaining the council’s position. Contrary to Case’s allegations, he doesn’t believe city services will get cut, even with less discretionary money in its reserve funds.
Regardless of the controversy surrounding the aquatic center, Buttery last week indicated that an unofficial dedication for the pool hub is set for Oct. 3, 2017. During a brief update at last week’s council meeting, the city manager stated that the aquatic center project is progressing quite well and should meet the construction schedule outlined earlier by city leaders. He cited weather as the main hurdle.
As for the Memorial Park rehab, he said the majority of the work will be completed at the site this fall. “People will start to see a big difference there,” said the city manager.