ST. GEORGE — At a recent City Council meeting, residents continued to express concern over the addition of a proposed recreation center to the Cedar City Aquatic Center as the council considered adopting a resolution that would authorize the cost and transactions necessary to move forward with the project.
The Aquatic Center was built in 2008 with a $7 million bond and an understanding that the facility would eventually be expanded.
In the council’s Nov. 4 work meeting, members considered a resolution authorizing the Municipal Building Authority to take out the debt and build the building, at which point the city will lease the building from the Municipal Building Authority and promise to make the debt service payments.
In June, the council approved the 2020-2021 fiscal year budget, which included the $6.2 million for the multipurpose recreation center project. At that meeting, several members of the community spoke on the project. Some council members expressed concern regarding the project, but it was ultimately left in the budget, as members stated they were still in the information-gathering stage.
“I think we need to finish gathering information, with this in our budget,” council member Craig Isom said. “I think if you pull this, you pull out from under our staff the motivation to go after borrowing rights, to get us all the information we need. I have complete confidence in this City Council to do the right thing ultimately.”
The project has been earmarked as a top priority project for a long time, council member Tyler Melling said at the Nov. 4 meeting; however, he added that he is probably the most skeptical council member in regards to the building for several reasons, including the financial feasibility of such a large project. The $6.2 million only includes the cost of the building itself and does not include operating costs such as utilities or personnel, he said.
The current Cedar City Aquatic Center loses approximately $450,000 a year, Melling said. The original thought was that building a gym would help decrease that deficit to around $200,000-$300,000, but Melling said preliminary data is indicating there is potential for the gym expansion to actually widen the deficit.
He said the expansion was being pushed forward as something good for the city economically as well as for the quality of life of its residents, but with more information on the potential cost versus the potential benefit, that argument is getting weaker and weaker.
Residents who spoke out at the recent work meeting tended to agree with Melling.
Cedar City resident Milton McLelland reiterated his impassioned plea from five months ago for the council to stop reaching into the citizens’ pockets and using the money to fight private businesses that offer similar services.
As it stands now, the bond will be paid for through sales tax revenue.
But, Melling said, it might not be enough to both be financially feasible and allow for the greatest access to the public.
In theory, he said, if they are using taxpayer dollars to fund the recreation center, then the public should be able to use it for free, but the subsidy would be too expensive.
The other options would be to make the recreation center a profitable entity by charging enough in memberships or fees to turn a profit – again, competing with private business – or touting it as a destination for basketball tournaments and camps, which would fill the courts to capacity for large swaths of time.
Both options would limit the amount of time and access Cedar City residents would get to use the facility, particularly lower income families.
Melling said it is frustrating to him that the gym isn’t going to help the kids who could really benefit from it the most.
McLelland said he has been criticized for being so emotional over the issue.
“Emotions are strongest when a value is crossed,” he said, adding that one of his core values is standing for the weakest and making sure that those in power don’t use it to oppress those who cannot fend for themselves. He continued:
Therefore it should come as no surprise when the people in power in my community start down a path that would rob the public of funds that should be used for public safety and infrastructure to go on and spend that money to compete with some of the smallest businesses in our community by building a gym that is in one of our most affluent neighborhoods.
Others, including Dr. Joe Baker, professor of managerial economics at Southern Utah University, spoke on the cost versus the benefit as well.
“Does it make sense for the City Council to undertake actions that would lower our total welfare in Cedar City? Would you do that?” Baker asked. “Because I think there’s without a doubt that that’s what this project will do. You will reduce total welfare in Cedar City.”
Baker expounded upon what he said was the “classic case for public good.”
“What the government should provide is something the market can’t provide,” he said, adding that a public good is something that is “nonexcludable,” meaning anyone can use it, and “nonrival,” which means someone using it doesn’t prevent someone else from using it.
Baker used the example of a streetlight as a public good. Anyone can use lighted streets in Cedar City, and the fact that he personally benefits from them does not prevent others from benefiting from them also.
“But a recreation center is a private good,” he said. “It is both excludable and rival.”
If the recreation center is being used by others, Baker said, he can be prevented from using it. Likewise if it is cost-prohibitive, he could be excluded from using it as well.
Baker urged the council to vote against the project and said that it will create thousands of people who are paying for it without ever being able to use it.
Another concern Melling brought up during the work meeting was the potential that the city could ultimately raise impact fees on parks to help pay for the project.
“Is the city going to raise the impact fees on parks to pay for this gym? I don’t know. I don’t have any inclination to do that,” Melling said adding that he just wants to be sure that the council is being transparent with the public as they vote on the bond resolution.
The resolution will be part of the action agenda slated for the Nov. 18 Cedar City Council Meeting held at 5:30 p.m. in the City Council Chambers, 10 N. Main St., Cedar City. The meeting can be viewed via live stream on the city’s YouTube channel.
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