Tim Leeds Havre Daily News email@example.com
Af ter an hour - long meet ing Wednesday about the funding of the Havre Community Pool, both the Hill County Commission and representatives of the Havre City Council said they would discuss the proposals advanced by each side proposing a county-wide tax to help fund the pool’s operation or simply negotiating a new agreement although neither side seemed inclined to accept the other’s proposals. Hill County Commissioner Kathy Bessette said that while she wants the pool to stay open, she is not willing have the county assume ownership of the pool to allow a mill levy request be put on the ballot, and that the county’s budget is so tight she does not believe it can spend much more than it has been to fund the pool. “We know revenues are down,” she said, adding that the county is probably going to have to cut jobs. The council representatives said they wanted to see some progress in the negotiations. “That’s what I’d like to see. I’d like to see something moved in some direction,” said City Council Member Allen “Woody” Woodwick. Council Member Bob Kaftan said the city council has seen a great deal of support for the pool. “It’s an asset for the city and county,” he said. “We can work together in a more cooperative way to see how it is funded.” Woodwick said a recent poll conducted by Healthy Communities, Healthy Youth, shows that only 20 percent of the youth in Havre believe the adult community truly cares about them. With 80 percent of the youth believing that adults don’t care, he said, even considering letting the pool close is not an option. “We’re sitting here bantering the idea of the pool,” Woodwick said. “Shame on us.” Increasing costs The cost of operating the pool has skyrocketed in the last two decades, going from a gross cost of about $71,000 in 1988 to more than $233,000 this year, according to the city. The city for the last few years has billed the county as per an interlocal agreement executed in 1974, which was drawn up while construction of the pool was being planned, under which the county will pay one-third of the net operating expenses, after pool revenues are deducted, or about $60,000 for this year. The county commission has maintained it will continue to pay the flat $19,000 it has paid for the last seven years, although it has previously said a different amount is up for negotiation. The county has never paid exactly one-third of the net cost of the pool’s operation since the agreement was made 34 years ago. For two years, early in the pool’s operation, the county paid slightly more than one-third. From 1992 to 2000, the county operated under another agreement where it provided dispatching services for the city in lieu of pool payments. After the city left that agreement and started operating its own dispatching center, the county has paid $19,000 Each year toward the pool. In the 21 other payments made through 2007, the county fell short of one-third of the net operating expense, ranging from a 3.8 percent shortfall in 1977, the second year the pool was in operation, to nearly 70 percent a $44,071 shortfall in 2003. The issue came to a head in October 2006 when the city submitted a bill for past-due amounts back to 1977, amounting to more than $280,000. Hill County Attorney Cyndee Peterson advised the County Commission in January 1997, in her letter stating that the 1974 agreement was invalid, that due to violations of the statute of limitations and the legal principle of offer and acceptance, the past-due bill did not have any legal basis. Contention on negotiations During Wednesday’s meeting, Terry Schend, chair of the city Finance Committee, said his perception of the discussion between the city and county, through Wednesday, was that the county was unwilling to discuss any changes in payment or sources of funding. He said that the county in January presented a payment of $19,000 and a draft of an agreement that would do away with the 1974 agreement and have the county pay $19,000 year by year. “It wasn’t signed, it wasn’t agreed upon,” Schend said, adding that discussing negotiating a new agreement with the county seems to go nowhere. “Are we open to discussion?” Commissioner Mike Anderson countered that the county is willing to make some concessions if the city is willing to work with the county. He said that it was his understanding that the results of an August 2007 meeting between the city and county was that the county would pay $19,000, as it had budgeted for the pool that year, and a new agreement would be negotiated. “That would be the starting point and we would work from there,” Anderson said Anderson said he was “shocked” when the one-year agreement was returned unsigned, with a bill for the remainder of the one-third of expenses, especially when the city did cash the county’s check. “And, as far as I’m concerned, the ’74 contract doesn’t exist,” he added. “I’ll put that on the table right there.” The county maintains that the 1974 agreement fails to meet requirements under state law, including stating an expiration date and methods of terminating the agreement, and has requested that the city and county negotiate a new agreement. It proposes making a $19,000 payment, as it has since 2001, and setting the parameters for future payments while negotiating the new agreement. City Attorney Jim Kaze, in a letter written May 9, 2007, disagreed with Peterson’s opinion written Jan. 25, 2007. In his opinion, Kaze writes that it is not certain that the agreement was not filed with the county clerk and recorder and the state attorney general’s office, which Peterson listed as a requirement. Even so, he wrote, the documents had been filed at that point and that issue was now moot. Kaze did not address Peterson’s points that the agreement violates state law by not specifying a duration or method to end the agreement. On April 9, 2007, the county delivered a letter to the city stating that regardless of the city’s opinion on the 1974 agreement, the county was terminating the agreement and a new agreement would need to be negotiated before the county would continue to contribute toward the pool’s operation. After the county's January 2008 check was cashed and the proposed agreement was returned unsigned, the county sent a letter to the city dated February 28, 2008, stating the county would no longer make any payments until written agreements were fully executed. The Havre Public Schools also pays $19,000 annually to help fund the pool’s operation. The city and the school district entered an agreement in 1976 stipulating that the school district would pay an amount to be agreed upon or negotiated each year, allowing the district use of the pool each school year. The Finance Committee has not proposed any increase in the school district’s share of the funding. Funding options During Wednesday's meeting, the council members requested the county consider taking over ownership of the pool, or entering a joint ownership similar to that used for the city-county library, allowing a mill levy request be put to the voters to help fund the operation of the pool. Anderson said he is not clear on how that ownership and a mill levy would function, and needed more information before he could make a decision. The County Commission agreed to discuss the issue with the Hill County Attorney. While Commissioner Kathy Bessette agreed she would discuss the idea with the county attorney, she said she is not willing to have the county take over ownership of additional property. She said the county already has expenses and liabilities from ownership, and she is not willing to have it take on more. She later amended her comment. “We’d take the pool if you'd take the (county) jail,” she said. “We have a lot of mandated expenses that are very costly.” Woodwick said he wants to hear what the county is willing to pay. He said the county has not made any proposals on how much it would increase its share. “That’s one of the frustrating parts, on my part,” Woodwick said. Council Member Gerry Veis also asked how much the county can pay. He said he needs to know a figure, a percentage or dollar amount, that the city can plan on having for the pool’s operation. “What we’re trying to talk about is sustainable funding,” Veis said. Veis said the Finance Committee does not want to spend taxpayer dollars to get a ruling on the validity of the 1974 agreement, but if no new agreement can be reached, that might have to happen. “I don’t want to be back two years from now in the same situation,” he said. Anderson said that at this point it is impossible to give an exact amount. The county does not know what it will have for available revenue, he said. He said he can give the commission two hard numbers if no agreement is signed, the city will receive zero dollars. If an agreement is signed, the city will receive $19,000, with that amount negotiable. Anderson said he sat in on a public meeting held in April where the community showed a high level of support for the pool, and many suggestions were made for fundraising activities. He asked if the Finance Committee was pursuing those ideas. He suggested that foundations can raise significant amounts of money, and cited donations that have been coming in since a project to renovate the chapel at Camp Kiwanis in Beaver Creek Park was proposed. Council Member Andrew Brekke said the committee is interested in those ideas, but the only source of continuous funding would be the county-wide tax. “We’re not opposed to any funding, but we need an ongoing funding stream ,” he said. Brekke said he doesn’t believe a foundation would realistically provide enough money to offset the increasing cost of operations. Bessette said that the Clack Memorial Museum has functioned for years through the revenues from the museum’s foundation. The committee members said they are pursuing some of the ideas, including discussing payments by Montana State University-Northern and having an energy audit done on the pool to try to reduce costs. Woodwick said one child even came in and donated a dollar to the cause but that doesn’t offset the $133,000 annual expense much. “Bake sales are great,” Woodwick said, but won’t pay for the pool. Issues still under consideration By the end of the meeting, both sides agreed to further discuss the proposals. The county said it would discuss taking full or partial ownership of the pool to allow a county-wide tax to be proposed, and the Finance Committee members said they would discuss the county’s requirement that a new agreement be drafted and signed before any payments would be made. Veis said he hoped Wednesday’s meeting would provide progress on the issue. “Hopefully, we’re off dead center,” he said.