Residents hear outdoor facility referendum pitch

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Above is the new River Ridge press box and concession stand behind some of the bleachers at the new football field. (Photo by David Timmerman)

By David Timmerman

 

If you were driving along STH 35 or USH 18 around Patch Grove Wednesday night, there was literally a bright glow coming from the River Ridge School District campus, as the new football, baseball, and softball fields were lit up. Obviously there was no game during this late day of January, but the district was showing off portions of the new outdoor facilities that they will be going to the voters this month to help pay for with a $2.3 million referendum.

“Hopefully we answer all your questions tonight,” District Administrator Clay Koenig told the moderately-sized crowd. Buttressed by the coaches who will be using the fields and the school board, Koenig and others looked to state why they had to act first to build the facilities, and come back to the voters to finance the site.

That reason, as Koenig showed in a powerpoint presentation, was to reduce the cost and liability of the district by eliminating the Bloomington campus (which hosted the football and track teams) as well as not delay a project that would just cost more money if they waited.

The district estimates that in order to keep the Bloomington site running, even just to be the locker room and restroom facility for those sporting events in the fall and spring, the cost was approximately $60,000 annually, with heating, electricity, insurance, and all the other costs associated with keeping the building and grounds up.

And that cost would have rose if something would have broken, Koenig continued, noting that the facility had its original boiler in place, installed when the building was erected in 1960.

He also stated that the track surface was not in the best condition, showing its age.

Having question marks like that hanging over them, Koenig stated that the district did not want to stick significant capital dollars into a facility they were actively trying to sell.

Selling the building, while keeping riders on it so that they could still use it for those sporting events, made the facility not very palatable to potential buyers. As part of the listing in 2018 for the facility, it included provisions that allowed the district to lease back the fields, the locker rooms, and other parts for several years into the future. 

The district had received an offer during that initial attempt to sell, but the amount was such that they decided it was not worth selling, and much less than the $110,000 the district ultimately got from KGCK Holdings, LLC, according to Board President Ken Nies.

The other side of why the board voted to act ahead of asking the voters was because they saw inflation increasing the cost every year $125-$150,000 annually, based on the projections that they had gotten before the Fall 2016 referendum on the outdoor facility, and estimates they got from the same construction firms last year when they began looking.

Limited by changes on the state level that did not allow the district call a special election, and the fact that there were no elections in the fall of an odd-numbered year, the district moved forward with the project before the approval by the voters.

And that issue was brought up by at least one resident, who pointed to a failed referendum question on the outdoor facility idea in 2016.

While voters approved a school addition to bring the middle school to Patch Grove, eliminating academic needs for the Bloomington site (and also providing $165,000 for lights for the softball field), voters did vote down a $1.5 million outdoor facility question, which would have done some of the same things the current project has done.

“I thought we voted on the complex when we voted on the school - it got turned down,” one member of the crowd said, asking if in the future other projects will be done before they go to the voters.

Koenig said that he didn’t see this as typical, but the board ultimately decided to move forward because of the continued cost of the Bloomington site, plus the increased cost if they waited, it was not a feasible solution to continue with the status quo.

“I feel they made a progressive decision,” Koenig said.

Another area some in the crowd wanted answers to was how the new facilities affect the agriculture program. Before the new fields, the ag program had 15 acres to use for test plots for the students, which was also utilized for income for the program with the sale of crops they grow.

The construction meant the ground was reduced to eight acres.

According to Nies, that meant there would be a reduction of income of around $5,000, but he said the board would review where the program is to make sure its funded.

“Sixty percent of students are involved in the ag program,” Nies said. “This whole school district is based on agriculture. We are not going to cut anything from our ag program.”

He said they had to maximize what they had on the campus, and felt that the amount left would still give students the ability to learn. 

Koenig stressed that the district did its homework when constructing the new facility, and that they worked with local contractors to keep the price lower than what they were quoted from firms that looked at the plans.

In addition to the facilities that are constructed, the project will also include some additional parking, as well as the purchase of equipment to manage the grounds.

So what does the $2.3 million cover? It would cover the $1.7 million state trust fund loan that the district took out to cover the price tag for the project, as well as returning to the coffers $335,000 the district took from its reserves that was saved from health insurance premium holidays the district has gotten.

The voters had approved $165,000 for new lights for the softball field as part of the middle school referendum in 2016, and the district also received $30,000 from the Touchdown Club for a sound system for the new facilities.

With the $150,000 non-recurring portion of the operating referendum that district had approved expiring last year, the new referendum, if passed, will have little impact on the district’s levy, which has been going down since the 2016 referendum. The first year of that referendum’s impact, the district had a mil rate of $13.72, which surpassed the previous high of $13.46 in 2013. Since then, however, because of tertiary aid from the state, and increased enrollment, the levy has dropped to the point that the mil rate this past year was $11.22.

What happens if the referendum doesn’t pass? If it doesn’t, the district will have to pay for the state loan through the operating budget, within the state-imposed tax levy cap. That would mean a payment of $231,200.71 from the operating budget next year. The district would likely refinance that loan to spread out payments, but that money would need to come from the operating budget.

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