Cedar City Council votes 3-2 to expand rec center, but opponents initiate ballot referendum

CEDAR CITY — The Cedar City Council voted 3-2 Wednesday night to proceed with plans to expand the city’s aquatic center by constructing new basketball courts and other amenities.

However, it appears that the long-debated $6.2 million project, which the council included in its 2020-21 budget passed in June, may be delayed even further or possibly halted altogether, as a group of citizens opposed to the project have since filed notice of a referendum to get the measure placed on the next election ballot.  

Wednesday night’s City Council vote came after about 90 minutes of public comment. Of the 20 or so people who spoke, approximately 3/4 of them said they were opposed to the proposed project. Two weeks earlier, during the council’s work meeting on Nov. 4, several other residents had also voiced their concerns.

Council member Ron Adams, who made the resolution to move forward with the plans as outlined, told those in attendance that although he appreciates the comments made by those who spoke, he thinks moving ahead with the project is the right thing to do.

“There is a large, positive group to move forward with this,” Adams said. “If I was to add up numbers, the ‘fors’ would be way ahead of the ‘againsts’ in emails I’ve received and phone calls.”

Fellow Council member Craig Isom agreed, saying, “The majority of you here are part of a very vocal minority. There is another, quote-unquote majority that has approached me and talked to me on the other side of the issue.”

Council member Terri Hartley, who joined Adams and Isom in voting to approve the resolution, said completing the project has been the city’s intention for more than a decade.

“We have been preparing for this facility since 2008 when we knew we were going to do Phase 2 on (the aquatic center),” Hartley said, adding:

Despite what’s been said by the majority tonight, that is not what the majority feel in our community. The majority of the people want us to move forward with this facility. We’ve been contacted by far more people that are sitting in this room, that say, ‘Please don’t let the opportunity go.’ The city’s prepared. We have the funding for it. Please try and move this forward.

The two opposition votes came from Council members Scott Phillips and Tyler Melling.

Phillips said his main concern was timing and suggested a decision on the issue be postponed until at least January.

“I would like to have us go a bit longer to see what our tax revenues are going to be like,” Phillips said. “We are moving into the wintertime now and we need to see where it’s at. 

“Right now timing is the biggest concern for me,” Phillips added. “Construction costs are high right now.”

Melling said one of his major issues was related to opportunity cost, or “What are we giving up for the money we are spending?

Melling suggested that the project’s estimated $300,000 cost per year be broken down into how much the city is willing to spend per hour for indoor sports activities, such as basketball, volleyball, pickleball and the like.

Melling suggested if the city were to put that amount out to bid, backed by the surety of a multi-year contract, multiple private entities would likely be interested in providing the gymnasium space needed.

“You know, here’s what a court-hour is worth to us as a city. And I bet we could get six to eight courts for the same cost.”

Melling also said numerous outdoor basketball courts on concrete pads could be added to city parks throughout the community for a fraction of the cost of constructing the indoor facility.

Cedar City resident Dan Kidder was one of the first citizens to speak out against the proposal at Wednesday night’s meeting, saying the price was simply too high. 

During his remarks, Kidder said the amount that needs to be considered isn’t just the $6.2 million initial cost, but another $2.1 million in estimated interest over the life of the 30-year bonds.

“$8,306,000 is what we will pay for this,” he said. “You know, it’s one thing to pay $250,000 for some places for kids to sell hot dogs, but it’s a very different matter altogether to spend $8.3 million so that kids have a place to play basketball.”

Even in a best-case scenario, Kidder added, that means 8,000 new homes would have to be constructed in Cedar City between now and 2051 in order for their impact fees to cover the cost of the project in question. He noted that only new residences pay impact fees, whereas commercial, industrial and agricultural developments do not.

Several other commenters shared similar concerns, suggesting the money could be better spent elsewhere.

“I don’t understand why there’s not something else more important to do with that much money,” Jean Peterson said.

“We want to spend it on something that I don’t believe is necessary,” another woman said.

“It is not the proper role of government to compete with entrepreneurs,” said another commenter, Marie Arnold, who said she is in the recreation business. 

“It is not fair the government can run a recreation business when it’s running in the red,” Arnold added. “That’s not fair and it’s not right. … The government’s role is not to be in the recreation business.”

Another commenter, Jeron Parry, spoke of the many less expensive recreational opportunities that can be had outdoors.

“There’s tons of things you can do without spending $6.2 million of my money and everyone else’s money in this room,” he said. “Especially when the aquatic center is losing money every year. You’ve got to be kidding. It’s the biggest joke in the world. We have plenty of businesses around here that provide gyms for people.”

The site of a proposed multipurpose recreation center at the Cedar City Aquatic Center, Cedar City, Utah, Nov. 4, 2020 | Photo by Jeff Richards, Cedar City News

Jennifer Weaver, the city’s sports and recreation program manager, said she was speaking as a parent first in her remarks to the council. She related how hard it was to provide indoor gym opportunities for her own children as they grew up, saying her youngest daughter is now a freshman in college and playing college basketball.

Then, speaking as the city rec program manager, Weaver related how difficult it is to operate city recreation programs with such limited facilities and court time available.

“It’s time,” Weaver said. “Right now’s the best time financially to do it. If we wait longer, it’s just going to be a $10 million project and a whole nother generation gone.”

“I just really want to be able to do my job and do it well, because I have a passion for providing an opportunity for people,” Weaver added. “I would love to do that to the best of my ability. Right now, I’m just wearing handcuffs every day.”

Bruce Burt, the city leisure services department’s building facilities supervisor, also said he was speaking as a citizen and not a city employee, remarking, “I’ve been in this community for 30 years, and I pay taxes. Who wants a city with no parks? Who wants a city with no place to go and nothing to do? Who wants that?”

Burt also decried the lack of progress the project has been making, particularly in recent years.

“This thing couldn’t move any slower,” Burt said. “It’s dead. It’s crawling.”

“We should be ashamed of ourselves,” he added. “Let’s do it.”

Other proponents talked of the health and other intrinsic benefits a recreation center can provide, along with how city rec programs can help provide opportunities for economically disadvantaged children.

Immediately after the City Council’s vote, Kidder and other opponents left the room and reconvened in a nearby conference room where some 21 people put their signatures on a referendum petition.

Then, Thursday morning, Kidder delivered the referendum papers to City Recorder Renon Savage and formally initiated the process of getting the measure put on the ballot next year.

“Our main goal with this is to allow the citizens to have a voice in this decision and not just have three people make that decision for us,” Kidder told Cedar City News in front of City Hall.

In order for that to happen, he said, the petitioners will need to gather signatures from at least 11.5% of the registered voters in Cedar City. 

“We estimate that it’s around 3,500 signatures that are required,” Kidder said. “We feel very confident that we can get easily 5,000 to 7,000.”

“In some ways, I think what we’re seeing here, as a result of previous actions by this council, there’s a loss of trust in the council that they are truly representing the needs of all of the citizens of Cedar City,” Kidder added. “And that lack of trust is what’s making us go through with this.”

Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2020, all rights reserved.

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