Fenway Park debt still troublesome
FL Council also struggling with field maintenance issue
A debt load on the Fenway Park Athletic Complex in Forest Lake continues to cast a dark shadow on city finances, but the council last week may have struck a compromise in addressing the debt.
But when it comes to maintenance of the baseball, softball, football and soccer fields, there is little willingness on the part of the city to levy funds to care for the complex.
A parade of city residents and property owners went before the council to speak at a budget work meeting on Thursday, Aug. 30. Some were there to praise, but others delivered scathing critiques of the debt and the athletic association that is now charged with maintaining the complex.
Finances have been an issue — both in maintenance and the debt — since the athletic complex was constructed in 2007 and opened four years ago.
The construction of the complex was financed in part through a $1.6 million inter governmental loan from the sewer and water reserve fund. The city chose the internal transfer to avoid bond costs and a tax levy with the goal of repaying the fund through parkland dedication fees paid to the Forest Lake Park Board.
With the housing market crash, however, those fees are nearly nonexistent and many of the vacant platted housing lots in the Headwaters development have paid parkland fees.
In searching for a way to lower the Fenway loan principal and interest, now at $1.7 million, the council agreed by majority consensus last week to use $200,000 a year for five years from the capital improvement fund which has a $2.8 million cash balance.
The annual contribution would begin to pay down the debt and buy time for the housing market to recover. Mayor Chris Johnson and Council members Mike Freer, Jim DuFour and Susan Young favored the plan while member Jackie McNamara was opposed, calling the action a bailout of the park board’s blunder.
“We’re covering up what I consider a big mistake,” McNamara said.
Ellen Paulseth, finance director, said the internal transfer to pay for Fenway avoided the need to borrow money. “The only other way to raise the money is to raise taxes,” Paulseth said.
Paulseth said later that at one point in budget planning staff considered a transfer of $1 million from the capital improvement fund as a faster way to pay down the Fenway debt. The fund has a cash balance of $2.8 million with dollars coming from municipal state aid and prior road assessments.
The $200,000 fee was suggested earlier in the planning process by McNamara, Mayor Johnson said. She backed away from the support last week, however.
The Forest Lake Area Athletic Association will move ahead with no new funding from the city. FLAAA did not seek relief from its maintenance contract with the city and only asked for some capital equipment purchases to assist with the care of the city-owned fields.
Those requests are not included in the 2013 budget which, for now, carries a zero or flat balance in terms of the new tax levy.
It was the maintenance arrangement and the future status of the Forest Lake Sports Center that sent many before the council to express opinions.
Dick Tschida, a former council member, warned that the council should not get further involved with the FLAAA-run ice arena because of its past investment in land and parking. He warned the city to “not to become another Vadnais Heights clone,” referring to the troubled ice arena to the south.
He also questioned FLAAA’s financial status, claiming FLAAA had a $1 million net fund balance while showing operating losses.
John Freed, a Columbus resident who owns commercial property in Forest Lake, said the city should not take over field maintenance without some assurance the city would collect revenue off the complex. “That’s not a good solution,” Freed said.
The complex had its defenders.
Avery Brunjes, a 24-year resident of the area and long-time FLAAA member, said the maintenance agreement with FLAAA resulted in fees to kids that are too high and forcing some use of the complex to be rejected, based on cost that FLAAA must recoup.
Fenway is the only park in the city that someone else takes care of, he said. He urged more council support for Fenway and pointed to the several thousand visitors who came to Forest Lake over the summer to use the complex.
“What we have out there — what you have out there is a gem,” Brunjes said. “I don’t want the community to lose this gem.”
Larry Porter, long-time FLAAA official, said the association needs roughly $80,000 a year for maintenance and is forced to subsidize some of the cost from its charitable gambling revenue and other sources. The youth baseball program under FLAAA, for example, spent $10,000 in 2012 for field use, he confirmed.
Porter said FLAAA got involved four years ago only when it became clear the city and its park board did not have the funds to open the facility.
“We’re not complaining,” he said. “It had to be done. We’re doing it.”
City Administrator Aaron Parrish said an effort is planned to explore if surrounding communities would share in the cost to maintain the fields because so many youth from other areas of the school district use the facility. Parrish said he was not optimistic that it would result in any real help.
The financial plight of city support for the park system also came up last week.
Johnson said it appeared the city was inadequately funding the 20 parks it now has, adding that an audit of the park system may be in order. He said he was disappointed to read in the newspapers of needs at Beltz Park that have not been addressed.
“We should be able to replace a basketball hoop,” Johnson said, pointing out the city’s budget will top $8 million in 2013.
That concern was reflected in a council consensus to back away from a proposal by staff to reduce park and recreation spending by $6100 in 2013. Part of the proposal was to trim $4000 from the Arts in the Park budget.
Parrish said the debt problem at Fenway Park is one that won’t be resolved soon, but can’t be ignored.
“This is one of those tough issues,” he said. “It [the project] didn’t go as planned.”