City Hall’s Assembly Chamber was packed Monday evening with users of the Treadwell Ice Arena and the city’s two pools, some speaking for and others against putting the facilities under the direction of empowered boards.
Two ordinances were proposed for the October ballot that would put the rink and pools under new management and remove them from the city Parks and Recreation Department. The goal of the change would be to increase revenue at the three facilities, which currently operate at a loss, in light of the city’s current budget deficit. Empowered, or enterprise, boards make decisions independently of the Assembly; existing empowered boards include those that govern Bartlett Regional Hospital, Eaglecrest Ski Area and the Juneau International Airport.
The Assembly voted unanimously to table the rink discussion for at least a year, after one resident after another spoke against rushing to add the ice arena to the Eaglecrest Board of Directors’ plate. The board itself submitted a letter to the Assembly July 15 stating the board had voted against assuming management of the rink.
“After lengthy discussion and public comment by several representatives of skating groups that use the arena, the Eaglecrest board voted (6 in favor, 1 excused) not to endorse or support placing this ordinance on the ballot for this year’s municipal election in October,” the letter, written by board President Mike Stanley, reads. “The board believes there are too many questions and uncertainties surrounding the transfer of authority for Treadwell and that we are not in a position, at this point in time, to make an informed decision on this matter.”
Stanley also addressed the Assembly on Monday.
“From our perspective from the Eaglecrest board, we really want to approach this as a company might before it’s going to acquire another company,” he said. “(The ski area and the rink are) very different facilities, operated in very different ways. It’s not one of those things that’s, ‘Oh, gee, this makes all the sense in the world.’”
Parks and Recreation Advisory Committee (PRAC) member Chris Mertl said that as a member of the committee and the public, he doesn’t believe anyone has enough information to proceed with putting the rink under the Eaglecrest board. It’s not even clear at this point how the move would ease budget problems, he said.
“I really don’t think this process has been properly vetted or that there’s been a lot of discussion around the issues,” Mertl said. “I think it’s really important to utilize the resources you have. Maybe an empowered board is the way to go; we just don’t know at this point.”
He said if the PRAC was to be given nine months or a year, the Parks and Recreation Comprehensive Plan would be finished, which would provide the Assembly with more direction on how to proceed with the city’s recreation facilities.
Matt Boline of the Youth Hockey Association Board said the group has gone back and forth on whether an empowered board would be right for the rink.
“Initially, we supported an empowered board,” he said. “After speaking with the Eaglecrest board, ... it became obvious to our board that this wasn’t something the Eaglecrest board was welcoming. They don’t have the kind of passion for the Treadwell Arena. Our board isn’t opposed to an empowered board but we are opposed to rushing it under Eaglecrest at this point.”
Assemblyman Randy Wanamaker was first on the Assembly to speak up about holding off on putting the ice arena under the Eaglecrest board. He said it wasn’t clear how the empowered board would fix budget problems. Currently, the rink runs on an annual budget of $644,000 and brings in a little more than half that in revenue.
“I think we should wait and study this,” he said.
Assemblywoman Kate Troll said it was clear the rink wouldn’t work under the Eaglecrest board.
“On first blush, I thought this made a whole lot of sense,” she said. “As I’ve learned more ... it’s not a good fit, so we’re not going to gain those efficiencies.”
The Assembly decided to table the ordinance and perhaps consider it again in time for next year’s municipal election.
Although the future of the rink is on hold, the Assembly did vote to put the possibility of a new empowered board to run the Augustus Brown Swimming Pool and the Dimond Park Aquatic Center on the upcoming ballot.
Right now, the Dimond Park Aquatic Center runs on an approximately $1.2 million budget but brought in only $457,469 in fiscal year 2013, according to city numbers. Augustus Brown operates on $810,222 and brought in $172,620. Currently, the city’s Aquatic Facility Advisory Board advises the Assembly on issues related to the pools. The Assembly still has the final say.
Members of the public spoke for and against creating the empowered board, but the Assembly decided in the end that it had the information it needed to proceed — with caution.
“We can provide it to the voters and let the voters make a decision,” Wanamaker said. ”I’m willing to trust the voters.”
Other Assembly members weren’t so sure, but voted in favor nonetheless.
“I have not been happy with the push to get this immediately done,” assemblywoman Karen Crane said. “I am going to reluctantly vote for this, but I am telling you I am not going to vote for the ordinance if the public approves it until we have the details worked out.”
Troll said the quickly-approaching election and the upcoming budget cycle is forcing the Assembly’s hand on the empowered board.
“I do agree with (Crane) that we don’t have all the answers but we’re kind of driven by the timeline,” Troll said. “And because it is a ‘may’ it does give us the opportunity to get more of that analysis done (if the voters approve the board) ... At this point in time, I think this is a very astute step to take forward.”
Assemblyman Jesse Kiehl said, for both the ice arena and the pools, “the empowered board approach has some significant potential benefits for the ardent users for a facility, but it also has some risks to the broader community.”
Asking empowered boards to increase revenues at the facilities could mean increasing costs to use the facilities. This could “price out” some of the rink’s and pools’ users, Kiehl said.
“We price out the general public who are not ardent users of the facilities,” he said.
The Assembly needs to decide if it wants to make money on the facilities or keep them accessible to all as a service to the public, Kiehl said.
“I’m very, very nervous about this approach,” he said before the vote on the aquatics board. “And deeply concerned that the success the Eaglecrest board has had, and they have been successful, has become sort of a beacon that people are looking at, and they may be losing sight.”
During the latest budgeting cycle, the Augustus Brown pool was on the table for closure but city leaders later decided to not “mothball” the facility after public outcry.
Eaglecrest is the only city-owned and operated recreation facility that breaks even, but 27 percent of its budget — $750,000 in fiscal year 2014 — is subsudized by the city.
The meeting was still in progress as of press time.
Editor's note: The second-to-last paragraph of this story was changed to include more detail about Eaglecrest's funding sources.