Common Sense Sammamish, a “No” Vote website.
YSoHigh, another “No” Vote website.
YesSammCAC, a “Yes” Vote website.
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Ballots arrived last week for the Nov. 6 election and one of the issues is Sammamish Proposition 1, an advisory vote on the proposed public-private partnership between Sammamish and the YMCA for a 40,000+ sf community center with aquatic features.
I’ve previously written that I think an advisory vote is a dumb idea and detailed why in two posts (see above). I still think it’s dumb, but you can’t un-ring this bell, so it’s time to get down and really analyze the issues.
I met Friday and Monday with opponents and supporters of the Proposition. I’ve read the web sites, the newspaper articles and I’ve followed the debate. I participated in one of the public meetings. When it is all said and done, here are the issues as I see them.
$25 million “gift”? False on the Truth-O-Meter
Opponents, who are sincere in their criticisms and philosophical pursuits, are calling the City’s plan to spend $25m of $30m for construction of the Community Center “a gift” to the YMCA.
Sorry, people, this is simply False.
This is and will be a city-owned facility, not a funding of a facility to be owned by the YMCA–which would be a “gift.” If the Y weren’t involved, this would still be a City owned facility. The Y would get a management contract, not title to the building, while paying $5m toward the construction costs plus $1m in equipment and staffing. This isn’t to say this is the “best” deal the City can strike. I have real concerns about this (see below), and concerns expressed by the owner of the Columbia fitness clubs are real.
Community Center Goal Since 1999
Sammamish officials and citizens have been talking about developing a Community Center since the city was incorporated in 1999.
There has been a recognized need for an activity center for teens. There’s been a need for a location for senior activities. There’s been a long-stated desire for a competitive swimming pool that can be used by our local high school swim teams.
There has been discussion for probably close to a decade partnering with the YMCA. I can remember being in some meetings years ago in which a Y official said they wanted the city to build a facility and turn it over to the Y for branding, program development and total management—at no cost to the Y. I said to the Y official then that as a taxpayer, the idea of our city paying 100% of the cost and then having no say in the programs was an idea that I found less-than-appealing. (I was considerably more blunt.)
The City Council dithered and dithered over whether to move forward with a Community Center.
In a related matter, the City also dithered interminably with the Boys and Girls Club about a partnership for a Teen Center. This was initially to be on the corner of 244th Ave. and NE 8th, but the Club did nothing for so long to raise the money, the property was put to other uses.
Despite this unhappy experience, the City then entered into a partnership with the Club to manage, invest in, expand and create programs for the Teen and Senior Center that now occupies the old King County Library at NE 8th and 228th. Except there are no senior programs, as required by the contract, no investment and no expansion.
At long last, the City began taking concrete steps to create a Community Center. Public meetings were held. Consultants were hired. And the result was a proposed 90,000 sf, $64m facility that was 2 ½ times the City Hall at five-to-seven times the cost, depending on how some figures were accounted for. The place would have been the largest Community Center in King County—an astounding, grandiose plan that was shocking in its audacity.
The City was also criticized for not exploring public-private partnerships to bear at least some of the cost.
The City Council promised it would put this plan to a vote, a proper decision considering what was proposed.
Wisers heads prevailed. The project was downsized to some 60,000 sf, slightly larger than City Hall, with a smaller pool. A Memorandum of Understanding was struck with the YMCA whereby it would contribute $5m in construction funds and invest another $1m in equipment and staff. The City would contribute $25m in construction funds and reserve a 10% contingency fund.
The Y would manage the the programs and have a 40 year contract, according to many, many statements by the City.
Although this was half the cost of the original plan and two-thirds the size, a far more reasonable approach, the Council decided to still put the issue to a non-binding Advisory vote Nov. 6, at a cost of $50,000.
Is the YMCA A Done Deal? Not Yet–and the City Hasn’t Adequately Said So
In yet another mishandling of the communications and public relations for which the City has become so adept, the fact of the matter is there is no firm deal with the YMCA to manage the Community Center. The existing Memorandum of Understanding is for the capital costs of the building only. No draft contract exists, none has been negotiated, no MOU exists. I find this pretty appalling, considering the City is asking citizens for their “advice,” but I’ve been whining about this for some time.
If the Advisory vote is a “Yes,” a contract with the Y still has to be negotiated. If one acceptable to the City Council isn’t reached, then the City has to decide if and how to proceed with the Center and who else might manage things.
Of course, I argue the City should have gone for competitive bids in the first place, but we can’t un-ring that bell, either.
The Advisory Vote
See the links at the start of this post for my previously published comments about why I think an Advisory vote is a bad idea. My views haven’t changed, but having previously written about this, I won’t repeat the comments here.
This concept is a highly controversial public policy debate that’s been around for decades. Many politicians, but notably Republicans, believe that private parties can do a better job than government at managing a variety of services that are typically thought of as “government services.” This includes Community Centers. Thus, I find it ironic that the leading opponents of partnering with the Y are solid Republicans who think it a bad idea.
I don’t have any issues conceptually with public-private partnerships. It’s a way to stretch dollars. I don’t have issues conceptually with partnering with the YMCA. After the $64m Taj Mahal was proposed, I advocated the City explore a public-private partnership with the Y.
But as it turned out, it seems that this is the only public-private partnership the City truly pursued. And I have lots of issues with sole-sourcing on something of this scale without exploring options and competitive bidding.
Yes, there were some exploratory discussions with others besides the Y but seeking bids through a Request for Proposal? Nope, didn’t happen. So we don’t know if this is the best deal, a mediocre deal or a bad deal.
This is a $30m facility, plus a 40 year contract. This isn’t going to McDonald’s for lunch. Issuing a Request for Proposals seems to me (and to others) to be prudent fiscal management.
The owner of the Pine Lake Club and Columbia Fitness Club offered to partner with the City: buy the land and he would build a 40,000 sf Center that would have rooms for Teen and Senior activities. The proposal apparently wasn’t given serious consideration; the owner told me no negotiations or in-depth discussions were ever held.
He’d have liked an opportunity to bid on this project.
So, perhaps, would others.
It was not to be.
What About This Deal?
Bearing in mind that in reality there is no deal:
As mentioned above, the Y would invest $5m in construction funds and spend another $1m on staff time, equipment and employing people. The Y gets a 40 year contract. The Y manages the programs.
The Y doesn’t get a mortgage. It doesn’t pay property taxes since it’s a City-owned building on City-owned land. The Y gets all the operating risk—and all the operating profits, which can be spent anywhere in the Y system and not exclusively reserved to this facility, if the Y gets its way.
The City doesn’t get any share of the profits, if the Y gets its way. But there is no contract, so this isn’t for sure.
Councilman Don Gerend claims there is no risk of the Y walking away if losses are too large—but Council Member Nancy Whitten believes there will be a contract that includes a Mutually Agreed Termination Clause.
I’ve previously commented on this.
The City gets to lease property owned by the Y next to Pine Lake Middle School for $1 per year for 50 years, provided that within five years plans are developed for some other recreational facility. No facility has been defined but conversation has suggested an indoor soccer arena or basketball courts or something similar.
As we citizens prepare to give our “advice,” there is no contract draft, just an MOU (Memorandum of Understanding) for the construction.
And here we come to the crux on my objections to the Advisory vote. We citizens are being asked to “advise” on something for which we don’t have all the facts and for which even the City doesn’t have everything.
- What are the risk factors? We citizens don’t know. There isn’t a contract. What happens if the Y decides this is such a money-losing proposition that it either has to renegotiate the contract or terminate it? Nobody knows, not even the Council.
- The City is in essence giving the Y a 40 year franchise of a City-owned facility—and the City doesn’t get a “franchise fee” as things stand today–because there is no contract. No share of the profits. Taxpayers are taking 83% of the risk—and getting no financial reward. This is, frankly, astounding. Unless the contract that doesn’t yet exist is properly negotiated.
- Is the Y deal the best that can be achieved? Opponents say they’ve talked with other cities, and come away from these discussions concluding Sammamish is taking a path and spending money no other city has done when working with the Y.
As long as the City is asking for our “advice,” these are elements that a pretty important for us to know. But there is no contract for us to review, no statements of risk factors, no full disclosure.
What Does the Vote Mean?
I previously wrote that if citizens vote “No” the City won’t have any clue why. So I refer the Reader to that post.
But what if the citizens vote “Yes.” What are they really voting “Yes” for? Is it this facility? Is it this specific public-private partnership? Is it the concept?
I will be extremely leery of the City Council interpreting a Yes vote as an endorsement of an agreement with the Y that doesn’t exist.
After considering everything, including the very important fact that we’ve been dithering over a Community Center for 13 years, here’s where I come out on this proposal:
- I support proceeding with a Community Center.
- The current facility proposal seems reasonable.
- I think a public-private partnership probably makes sense.
- But, RFPs should be issued and competitive bidding should be sought.
- This sole-source negotiation with the Y may be a good deal. Or it may not. Without competitive bidding, it’s impossible to tell.
- The absence of a draft contract spelling out the financial terms and conditions, risk factors and management terms, City program inputs and so on, is a real concern—especially since we citizens are being asked to “advise.”
- The absence of RFPs and competitive bidding and a draft contract are a real concern.
- Approving Proposition 1 will be a real leap of faith that the Administration and City Council will remedy the shortfalls outlined in this post.
If the vote is Yes, it will be incumbent on the Citizens to hold the City’s feet to the fire to get this right. If the vote is No, the City needs to understand that the shortcomings–and the total mishandling of this entire issue bringing us to this vote–means this deal was a bad idea and that a Community Center has been desired since incorporation and in every City survey since.