Council Wades Into $60K Pool Repair Choice

Published 5:23 pm Tuesday, September 24, 2013

FARMVILLE — To swimming pool or not to swimming pool, that is the $60,000 question facing town council.

Officials will decide in the next month whether to repair the pool at the Farmville Municipal Golf Course or do away with it.

According to Town Manager Gerald Spates, this past summer saw 2,773 people use the pool during its 79 days of operation between Memorial Day and Labor Day.

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Most of Town Council wants to find some way of financing the estimated $60,000 in repairs, though council member David E. Whitus, who noted the Town entered the month with a balance of $19,000, doesn’t want the Town swimming in red ink.

Council’s finance committee will offer a recommendation for action in October.

The discussion during council’s September meeting saw Spates advise them “that council needs to make a decision. Do you want to continue to use the pool or, we talked about it before, (possibly) fill it in and use it for a tennis court?”

The town manager defended the pool, referring to criticism from “people (who) say ‘Why do you spend money on this? Why do you spend money on a golf course?’ I can’t say that every time you do a recreation program you’re going to make money on it but I’ve heard Mr. Hunter (Town Council member and Acting Piedmont Regional Jail Superintendent Donald L. Hunter) say this time and time again—we’ve either got to provide recreation opportunities for the kids now or we’ll be paying for them in jail later. I think this shows we have almost 2,800 people who use the pool and I think with what we’re planning to do to it those numbers will go up.”

But, Whitus cautioned, “At some point, everybody has to make the tough decision. It’s in every business, it’s in every government and, ladies and gentlemen, if we don’t start making the tough decisions here, we’re going to be like some of the cities and towns that have filed bankruptcy that have gone down the hill.

“There’s got to be a point that we’ve got to say we don’t have the money and I understand what everybody’s saying,” Whitus said about the pool providing important recreation, especially for young people, “but there is no way that I can lay my head on my pillow and say I did the right thing by voting to spend $60,000 on a pool if we don’t have the money.”

Council member Dr. Edward I. Gordon also referred to criticism of the Town for purchasing the golf course, saying the Town acquired the property to protect the Farmville Regional Airport.

“There’s so many misconceptions about that whole thing,” Dr. Gordon said. “…But we never bought that property to make it an entertainment center. We bought it to protect the airport. And then we realized that we could create something for the town of value. So I know we hear comments all time—why’d we go out and buy a golf course?—but we didn’t do it for that reason. Our initial intention wasn’t to do that. We just found it was feasible and then a good idea and then Don’s idea just went through the whole town council as far as it would be nice to have.”

Dr. Gordon added, “And I agree with Don Hunter about ‘pay for it now or pay for it later.’ Yeah, it would be nice to make money on this thing but if we can at least break even over a period of time, I think that’s worth it, and even if we lose some money. On the flip side, how many people are we giving a better life to and are not going to wind up in jail, or some other place?”

Summing up his position on the swimming pool, Dr. Gordon said, “I think we ought to keep it. I think we ought to invest in it. And I think we ought to go forward with it.”

Hunter said he believes the public supports the Town operating the pool and people want the hours extended, prior to Memorial Day and after Labor Day.

“It has been a great tool for recreation…It’s a good release for (people),” Hunter said.

Council member Jamie Davis suggested the pool repair issue be assigned to the finance committee “to flesh it out a bit and come back with a recommendation.”

Davis also asked Spates where the money for the pool repair would come from, Spates replying from the contingency fund.

In arguing for fiscal constraint, Whitus made it clear that he appreciated the points made by Dr. Gordon and Hunter. “I agree with Doc and I agree with Don but I cannot in good conscience vote to spend $60,000 that we don’t have…” Whitus said.

Dr. Gordon subsequently asked about “working something out” so the Town wouldn’t have to pay the $60,000 as a lump sum, stretching out payments.

The physician agreed the Town could not afford a one-time payment of $60,000 at the present point of the budgetary year but argued that one of the functions of a town is providing services to the community.

“I still believe that a Town’s function—of course the town’s function won’t be anything if we go bankrupt—but a town’s function is to serve the community and there will be certain things that we do lose but I’m not so sure this is where the hard line will be drawn,” said Dr. Gordon regarding future belt-tightening that may require some services to be eliminated. “I think if there’s a way to figure out some approach to funding it without putting ourselves into a situation like we’re talking about (financial difficulty) then we ought to do so. I think that going into the finance committee with the idea of can we afford it (is a good approach). And I see us not being able to afford $60,000. I totally agree with that concept, but can we afford it over a period of time?”

And possibly with loan, he wondered aloud.

“Or is this something we just need to give up,” Dr. Gordon continued, “and if we do give it up what are the ramifications of that? Are the ramifications of that something that’s going to be detrimental to the town more so than if we (fix the pool)?”

The Town’s financial condition underlay the entire discussion, with Spates and Dr. Gordon referencing Whitus’ use of the word ‘bankruptcy.’

“I don’t think the Town is in any position of bankruptcy,” the town manager said, noting the Town had reduced its overall debt from $21 million to $15 million in the last year.

“We’re always tight this time of year,” Spates said.

It was then that Whitus observed, “look at your treasurer’s report and you’re starting your month with $19,000.”

Dr. Gordon later said “David—you correct me here if I’m wrong—nobody here thinks we’re on the verge of bankruptcy and I don’t think David meant it that way. We’ve been talking all along that we have to be very careful about how money is spent or the long-term picture can be like other towns…We’re not even close to bankruptcy. We don’t want to get close. We don’t want to get there. I want to make that really clear because I think the misconception that we’re close to bankruptcy is false.”

Whitus agreed that he did not mean the Town was on the verge of bankruptcy.

And when Spates said “we’re not unusual in holding bills until the money comes in—I think a lot of places do that—but we always pay our bills,” Whitus concurred.

Holding bills is “very much the norm. Very common,” Whitus said.

So, to swimming pool or not to swimming pool?

The town manager told council members he would do away with the pool should that be their choice.

“I’ll be glad to fill the pool in,” Spates said, “if that’s what you want to do.”

But Dr. Gordon replied, “I don’t think that’s what we want to do.”

So Spates acknowledged his own opinion that “I think it’s something that’s important enough that you’re going to have to bite the bullet and say ‘Hey, we’ll see if we can work out something to pay these people over three months or four months.’”

Council member Sally Thompson and Hunter agreed that sending the issue to the finance committee would allow them to see “what the options are.”

Those options will be offered for council members to dive into and vote during October deliberations.