Through yard signs, social media and letters to the editor, organizers of the Sequim Aquatic Recreation Center’s proposed levy campaign want residents to know they need to “Save SARC.”
Proponents say the 27-year-old facility is likely to close by the end of 2016 due to depleting reserves and increasing costs for replacing deteriorating equipment and infrastructure.
SARC board chairman Frank Pickering said closing the mixed-use recreation center is a reality if the levy fails.
“It’s definitely true. We have to submit a balanced budget to Clallam County and since we’ve been taking money out of reserves to balance our budget, we believe barring any unforeseen expenses we’ll have a legitimate budget for 2016,” Pickering said.
“But we cannot submit a legitimate budget for 2017, so the board has no choice under state law but to close the doors. We cannot operate at a deficit.”
So he and the center’s board approved a levy for voters to approve a 12 cents per $1,000 of a home’s assessed valuation for the Feb. 10 ballot. A homeowner with a house valued at $200,000 would pay about $2 a month or $24 a year while supporters say the median household assessed value of $217,000 in Sequim will pay $26.04 a year or $2.17 a month.
The levy must receive at least a 60 percent majority in the Sequim School District boundaries minus Jefferson County residents. The rate would be fixed for six years generating about $428,360 per year.
Center director Scott Deschenes said if the levy passes, there are three components. The first would help replace infrastructure like the pool air handling unit valued at about $350,000. The second would be replacing and repairing equipment, which Deschenes said are a lot of little things like commercial air filters, and the third would be about $200,000 in cost recovery.
Deschenes said in the first week of 2015, the center already paid $14,000 in emergency repairs for heat exchanges and repairs to the hot tub.
Two former board of commissioners say maintenance issues have been prevalent and that a majority of current and former commissioners chose not to act before.
Bill Black, a commissioner from 1999-2007, said the board was “stagnant and would not recognize the problems that were going to occur.”
“When I was on the board in 2006, I gave them a presentation, where I thought the board was going,” he said. “Later, I resigned out of extreme frustration a year before my term ended.”
Black said his estimates for declining revenues came within less than 1-percent now “in the neighborhood of $400,000” of total reserves.
David McArthur, another former board commissioner, said he resigned shortly after Black.
“My feeling was they haven’t really done a good job of managing the money that they’ve got,” he said.
McArthur said they could have acted to replace many of these items years ago at a cheaper rate.
“They have no idea of the cost of money,” he said. “Well, everything goes up every year. Why would you need to put everything off to a higher cost later on? They’ve done that for quite a lot of its history.”
Now, he feels the commissioners are asking for too much from residents.
When the center first opened, its costs were offset with a levy for 14 years until 2002 when voters turned down two votes for a levy first at 12 cents and then 10 cents per $1,000 of assessed valuation.
Deschenes said there are a few more things working against the center today. He said when it was first established in 1988, residents paid 15 cents per $1,000 of a home’s assessed valuation, which in today’s inflation is 31 cents.
The center also received timber revenues that don’t exist today and interest rates were much higher then.
SARC also is the only known facility of its kind without support from a parks and recreation district in the nation, staff say.
Susan Sorensen, former chairman of the center’s board and current Citizens for SARC chairman, said commissioners mostly voted to turn to reserves because they figured people would not support another attempt at a levy.
“Then the economy tanked and the building got older,” she said.
But Black said blaming the economy is “ridiculous.”
“The economy wasn’t in very good shape but any business does something,” he said.
In 2011, Black said he and four others formed an ad hoc committee to make recommendations to enhance revenue. They developed several pages of ideas but they were shelved.
Deschenes said he began to adopt some of the proposals without knowing it such as implementing family nights and opening later.
Deschenes noted that following new efforts in the past 18 months, pass-holders increased from 2,400 to about 3,060. “Dramatically, there are a lot more families,” he said.
Pickering said they lowered some fees because there was a strong opinion that the center wasn’t serving the whole community.
“Some said raise fees (to offset costs) but then only the wealthy would be able to use the facility,” he said.
Deschenes said they saw an adverse effect after the past proposed levies failed where they raised rates and usership and maintenance went down. He also estimates by the end of the levy campaign they will have about $2 million in overall deferred costs.
Like a business
Both Black and McArthur said the center should be more self-sufficient and run more like a business.
“They had to do something but they refused to do something,” Black said.
“They refuse to recognize SARC is a business … That’s what a normal person would do. You restructure. There are things that could be done but they sit there and wring their hands. Help us.”
SARC’s leadership says the center is among one of the best at recovering its costs at about 80 percent a year through 2013 whereas other pools on the peninsula are far less and the national average of similar facilities is about 65 percent.
“But that’s comparing it to people who aren’t doing their jobs either,” McArthur said.
“They are comparing it to other failures. They aren’t taking any steps to lower costs. They wait until everything is broken and have to fix it.”
Pickering said SARC isn’t a business though.
“It’s an entity, its purpose is to serve the community. It’s to serve everyone,” he said.
“If we raise rates, we turn back to the thing we were justly accused of being a club for the rich and old. But now we have babies and toddlers and children. The millenials are coming in. A lot of guys in their 20s and 30s are coming in and we’re still supporting middle-aged folks. We have a responsibility to serve that community and not to make a profit and do it as soundly and as close to break even.”
Pickering said he looks at SARC like a form of insurance.
“You may not need it now, but people getting rehabilitation are continuing it at SARC,” he said.
“We’ve kept people moving and walking.”
On the poolside
Centered on debates about SARC are whether or not keeping the pool open would eliminate financial woes.
Black said the non-pool areas like the weight equipment room and gymnasium, are the cash flow.
Deschenes said when the pool closes, usership goes down about 60 percent, which also closes the steam room and saunas and hot tub.
“Without the pool, SARC is simply a gym,” Pickering said.
“The community would lose out. The school district would have no place for kids to swim. Yes, (Port Angeles) has a pool but there’s not a lot of room there since they have so much going on already.”
SARC also houses low impact exercise classes, swim lessons, swim teams and more in the pool.
Black said he foresees that if the levy fails, the pool may be the first thing to close until there’s enough backlash so they’ll consider another levy amount or consider a Metropolitan taxing district.
McArthur, who is letting his membership expire, said he thinks SARC needs significant restructuring.
“I think it would be better off on a businessperson’s hands,” he said. “If they suggest selling or shuttering, there would be lots of buyers. It may not stay the same but you can’t stay the same and not be full of the same problems.”
Sorensen said there’s a value for people who do and don’t use SARC whether it’s for after-school activities, rehabilitation or in the future.
“They have to think about impact on entire community,” she said. “I think we all have to think about the benefits, not just our own special interests. That’s what makes Sequim a wonderful place to live. What’s in best interest of everyone, not just themselves.”
For more information about the levy, visit www.sarcfitness.com.
SARC’s 2015 levy proposal
Proposed: 12 cents per $1,000 of a home’s assessed valuation
Cost: Homeowner with a house valued at $200,000 would pay about $2 a month or $24 a year while supporters say the median household assessed valuation of $217,000 in Sequim will pay $26.04 a year or $2.17 a month.
Margin: Must pass with 60 percent majority
SARC mechanical tour with Burt Cannon
What: Behind the scenes tour of the facility
When: 5 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 22
Where: SARC, 610 N. Fifth Ave.
Citizens for SARC rally
11 a.m.-1 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 31, sign waving at corners of Sequim Avenue/Washington Street and Priest Road/Washington Street.