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Members of City Council Formally Express "Sticker Shock" at Community Aquatic Center's $64 Million Cost

The Sammamish City Council met on Tuesday evening - and had a candid talk about the proposed community aquatic center, its design, people's fitness needs and cost.

Earlier this year, when Sammamish city officials and consultants began talking about building a community aquatic center, there was one particular statement that continues to be true.

There are no that anything would be supported or built. But talk about building lap and activity pools, basketball courts and a fitness area in a family-friendly, growing city of  and seeing computer designs certainly can whet one's appetite.

But members of the on Tuesday formally expressed "sticker shock" at the for a 98,000-square-foot community aquatic center on the , near .

While the City Council did not take a formal vote to stop the $64 million project, the sense of the elected body was strong enough such that leaders are likely to pause, rethink and reset.

On the table were three parts of the project: A 98,000-square-foot community aquatic center on the Kellman property, structured underground parking and two traffic circles on 228th Avenue Southeast to handle more automobiles.

After consultants presented cost estimates and updated designs, which were part of a feasibility study, Councilman John James was the first to utter what became a popular refrain for his colleagues: "Sticker shock."

In fact, a majority of City Councilmembers uttered those two words that it appears unlikely that a $64 million project would receive formal approval if taken before the seven-member body. 

Deputy Mayor Tom Odell said it was similar to having "champagne taste" but a "beer budget."

While James called the design beautiful, he took into account the political and fiscal realities of trying to put the proposal before residents for a vote - something which the City Council has said would be part of the process.

"I don't want to rain on anyone's parade," he said at one point, noting that the $64 million price estimate was likely to include everything in the "kitchen sink."

He said that the project on the table might become reality if enough residents - say, a supermajority in a bond vote - support it. But that would entail hard work, he said.

To finance the project could mean an increase in property tax, if a bond was pursued as the mechanism. City officials said that a $60 million project would cost the owner of a $520,000 assessed home, in 2011, $280.80 per year - or $23.40 per month.

That assumes a 0.54 cent cost per $1,000 of assessed value.

Residents also would have to pay to use the facility, whether it's a daily, quarterly or yearly pass. Facility use, including passes and class fees, was expected to cover 91 percent of the operational costs.

But that left a yearly $267,000 shortfall that city leaders would have to address to fully cover operational expenses.  

All of this goes to the question: What are residents in Sammamish, as a whole, willing to pay - if anything - to have access to pools, basketball courts and fitness areas, especially given that Pacific Northwest winters can be long, dark and cold and the number of kids in the city?

Put another way and as Odell asked: What are Sammamish residents willing to give up if there is a sense that a $64 million project is unaffordable?

Keep in mind that the project was proposed after architects and city staff listened to what residents said they wanted and the City Council picked city-owned property that slopes and is in a zoning area that calls for structured parking.

Architects estimate that the overall budget for 300 underground parking stalls would be $16 million. If 400 parking stalls were built on the Kellman site, the cost would be about $21 million.

There was talk on Tuesday that the higher number of parking spaces would be needed. There also was talk about efforts by the Boys & Girls Club of King County Redmond/Sammamish to turn the old library site into a teen club - and how that factored into the picture.

In a sense, only a vote of all Sammamish residents would be a true gauge of their financial tolerance and support of a community aquatic center. As some have noted, many residents are busy with daily life, work and raising kids to attend the public meetings about possibly building a community center.

But at Tuesday's meeting, among elected representatives, the need to reflect, question and analyze was clear.

Councilman John Curley talked about how there is a market need for a sports and fitness facility of this type in Sammamish for residents. He suggested turning to the private sector for the answer - but having the city offer incentives of waived taxes and an inexpensive lease to help the process.

"We make it attractive to them," he said. "If there's money to be made, the free market will find it."

Councilwoman Nancy Whitten dubbed the 98,000-square-foot building a "Taj Mahal."

She suggested renewed talks with the YMCA of Greater Seattle about a possible partnership. "I do support a community center. But I want it to be affordable," she said.

Councilwoman Michele Petitti said she would be more comfortable with a community aquatic center project in the $30 million to $35 million range.

She and other councilmembers talked about the public nature of a community center - especially as a place for people to gather. That was in comparison to the view among some of private sports and fitness clubs, where profit might have more weight.

"We need to roll up our sleeves and come up with a solution," Petitti, who works for the YMCA as Eastside director of development, said.

Earlier, Councilman Mark Cross echoed a similar thought, saying that he hopes that people do not "lose sight of the community aspect of this."

Mayor Don Gerend talked about, as part of his research, visiting fitness centers in Denver and the Seattle area. This included private sports clubs.

"They don't cater to families the way that community centers do," he said.

In the audience on Tuesday was Marcia Isenberger, the Eastside regional director for the YMCA of Greater Seattle. She stood to formally answer questions from the City Council - especially since talk about partnerships again surfaced.

"The Y is here to be a partner whatever that looks like," she said. "We are a good fundraising organization."

After the meeting, she said the YMCA also owns six acres of land near . That land, she said, could support a 70,000-square-foot project, which would include parking.

As a matter of comparison, the portion of the Kellman site which would be suitable for construction is seven acres.

But as consultants and city staff have said before, there are no "foregone conclusions" to anything with Sammamish's effort to possibly build a community aquatic center.

So, the rethinking and resetting portion of this public policy issue will likely follow in the coming months.

Editor's note: Before I joined Patch.com as the Sammamish editor, I worked as a membership services representative at the Coal Creek Family YMCA in Newcastle. Also, Sammamish Patch revised its cost estimate for the project to $64 million.   

Don Gerend July 14, 2011 at 07:26 PM
I take exception to Sean Stewart's statement "Sammamish already has a lot of debt." This is totally untrue. Sammamish has perhaps 7 times as much cash in the bank right now than it has debt. Also, the Federal Way International Dive center is not the family-friendly aquatics facility that is envisioned by our citizens for Sammamish.
david re July 14, 2011 at 08:03 PM
And I take exception to the whole process! It sounds like our elected "representatives" want to build themselves a legacy at somebody else's expense. And as for the person who complains about paying too much at a commercial facility offering similar services WITHOUT a taxpayer subsidy -- why not have the city go into the retail gasoline business, so we can get gas cheaper than at the existing non-taxpayer-subsidized commercial outlets, or why not have the city go into the software business so we can buy cheaper software than we can get from, say, Microsoft. Where does it end? It's frankly outrageous that any time or money has been spent on this fiasco-in-the-making already. This is malfeasance that borders on clinical insanity. Stop it. Just stop it. Please.
Brad Wong July 14, 2011 at 08:17 PM
Hi all, I appreciate everyone taking time to comment on this story. I recognize that possibly building a community aquatic center in the city is a major public policy issue and that there are many thoughts on the topic. Part of my job is to moderate comments. I encourage discussion but I want to point out, just in general, that Patch.com has terms of use. They can be found at this link: http://sammamish.patch.com/terms. Again, thank you for taking a moment to share your thoughts. If you have questions, please email brad.wong@patch.com. Best regards, Brad Wong Editor Sammamish Patch
Brad Wong July 15, 2011 at 02:49 AM
Hi all, I also asked Lyman Howard, deputy city manager and finance director, about a reader's comment that the city of Sammamish has a lot of debt. He replied that the city of Sammamish has $8,041,667 in balances that are owed. Of that amount, $2,175,000 will be paid off in December 2012, he said. That money was borrowed in 2002 to help develop Lower Sammamish Commons park. The remaining amount, or $5,866,667, comes from a loan in 2001 from the Public Works Trust Fund to improve 228th Avenue. This money was borrowed at an interest rate of 0.5 percent, Howard said. The city, he added, has a debt capacity of $210 million. Also, the city's 2011-12 budget is $86 million. I hope this information helps shed light on the question of city debt. Best regards, Brad Wong Editor Sammamish Patch
Valerie Spiegler July 17, 2011 at 12:08 AM
According to Don Gerend and Lyman Howard, the City has little to worry about financially. If this is true, I'd like to repeat what I said in another comment some time ago: There is a time and place for the construction and funding of a community/aquatic center. The most pressing immediate need is to invest in the infrastructure needed in the northwest quadrant of the the town center sub-area. With this infrastructure in place, developers would finally knock on the doors of City Hall. If we are so comfortable financially, why not do what is necessary to release the property owners, held hostage for years now, from a living hell? It is a travesty that the Council has been playing with the idea of a community center when they have thrown the town center project into the lake without a life preserver or any promise of rescue. Again, as I've said in the past, shame on all the council members who have had a hand in the town center debacle. Valerie Spiegler

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