By Tina Alvey
LEWISBURG — A second vote on financing the rehabilitation of an indoor swimming pool yielded much the same result during a rare Monday morning county commission meeting in the Greenbrier County Courthouse.
Commissioners were once again just as divided in opinion as the crowd of nearly 50 spectators appeared to be, but the spectators had to wait until the meeting’s end to be heard.
The vote to again allocate $1.3 million in bed tax revenue for restoration of the aquatic facility located in the Fine Arts Building at New River Community and Technical College’s Lewisburg campus was 2-1, with Commissioner Michael McClung casting the dissenting ballot.
McClung has consistently opposed the expenditure.
Commission President Betty Crookshanks explained that the re-vote, which consolidated two previous allocations the commissioners approved on identical 2-1 votes, was prompted by controversy that arose after the initial $1 million allocation was approved Nov. 13.
“We are going to take care of and clean up any controversy,” she said.
Attorney Barry Bruce, who sent the commissioners a letter last week threatening legal action on behalf of then-unnamed clients if the swimming pool allocation were not rescinded, asked to be heard before the re-vote was held.
But Crookshanks refused his request, saying he would have to wait until the meeting’s end, as would others who had signed up to speak on the issue.
The commissioners voted unanimously to reconsider the Nov. 13 funding decision and then voted 2-1 to amend the initial allocation to include an additional $300,000 that had been allocated for the project during a later emergency meeting. A final 2-1 vote was then taken to transfer the resulting $1.3 million allocation from the bed tax savings account to the county’s checking account and to issue a check to the college foundation for the renovation of the Fine Arts Building and Aquatic Center.
Upon hearing that result, Bruce left the meeting room without another word.
In a later telephone interview with The Register-Herald, Bruce said once the vote was taken, he had “no reason to stick around.” Instead, he returned to his office to put the finishing touches on the writ of prohibition petition he said he plans to file today.
Bruce said he asked to speak because he had wanted the commissioners to clarify the reason they did not put the entire $1.3 million to a vote Nov. 13. He said Crookshanks offered a different reason for the shortfall Monday from the one he had heard her say on a tape of the emergency meeting held last Tuesday.
During Monday’s meeting, Crookshanks said that although the commissioners had originally discussed allocating $1.2 million Nov. 13, they pulled back from that figure because “we’d heard that Mr. (Woody) Hanna was going to file an injunction.”
She said she later discovered that Hanna, who won the November election for the commission seat Crookshanks now holds, was not the person behind the potential legal challenge.
“I was just astounded,” Bruce said. “Betty said (Monday) Woody was the reason for the shortfall, but in the emergency meeting, she had a different story. She said the state didn’t come up with the money (Delegate) Tom Campbell was promised for the pool.”
Bruce said he hopes to see a “fast resolution” to the writ request.
“I feel real good about this case,” he said.
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Following completion of the rest of their agenda Monday, the commissioners turned to the public comment sign-up sheet and provided time for each person who wanted to speak, even though the issue all of them addressed — the pool — had already been decided.
Eight people spoke in favor of the pool, while two people spoke against certain aspects of the project. Another four people — who did not object when Crookshanks characterized them as project opponents — fruitlessly yielded their comment time to the absent Bruce.
Former County Commissioner Steve Malcomb asserted, “I’m for a pool,” but said he’s not in favor of this particular pool project.
Among his concerns were a lack of parking near the facility and the fact that neither a municipality nor the county owns the property on which the money is being spent.
Chided by Crookshanks for his part in ceding the property to the college while he was on the commission, Malcomb acknowledged, “We owned the building, and we gave it away because it was cost-prohibitive to keep it.”
Another speaker, Mary Jo Sharp, also maintained she is not against a pool, per se.
“My objection has been the way it was done,” she said. “I don’t think two people have the right to say how we spend a million dollars.”
Sharp added, “I don’t like to be dictated to (about) how our taxes are to be spent. Everything was done behind closed doors.”
That last remark was immediately contradicted by McClung, who told Sharp that, although his own position against the pool project is well-known, “This is not a dictatorship.”
He explained that all three commissioners were elected to represent their constituents and act on the people’s behalf in such matters as expenditures of tax funds.
Sharp countered that she still believes “one million dollars is a heck of a lot of money.”
Several of the Aquatic Center’s supporters read letters they had written to local newspapers, citing such issues as the potential economic impact of a year-round public pool in the county seat and the health-related benefits such a facility could bring to the region. Many also decried the anonymity of the organized opposition to the project.
Sherman McClung, who ran unsuccessfully for a seat on the commission earlier this year, bluntly said, “I’m for the pool.”
He said that, once the pool project became a campaign issue, he was “inundated” with calls from people from around the region who also supported the Aquatic Center proposal.
He cautioned, if the project is delayed in any way, it might have to be re-bid again and turn out to be even more costly in the future.
Crookshanks called upon county recreation director Roy Grimes to share some details of the proposed marketing plan for the Aquatic Center, which he will manage.
Grimes said the committee he heads up is in the process of raising money to support the operations of the pool. In addition to a $30,000 annual commitment from one “angel” often cited by Crookshanks, Grimes said several other ongoing financial commitments have already been secured.
He said he also plans to seek partnerships with area businesses and medical entities, such as Greenbrier Valley Medical Center and the West Virginia School of Osteopathic Medicine, and to identify funding opportunities linked to offering aquatic programs for people with handicaps.
In a response to a question from the audience, Grimes said he expects the pool’s first annual budget to be significantly higher than subsequent budgets, due to the need to acquire equipment and to employ lifeguards, rather than use student lifeguards supplied by the college.
That first year’s budget should be around $200,000, Grimes estimated.
He projected annual revenue from memberships and various educational and therapeutic programs to be between $80,000 and $100,000, a figure that does not include donations.
“We hope to break even in the second year,” he said.
Crookshanks said the county also hopes that Lewisburg will chip in on the pool’s operating costs, since the Aquatic Center is in the municipality.
Grimes said Lewisburg Mayor John Manchester told him the issue needs to go before the city’s finance committee as a first step.
Another question posed by the audience involved the cost of memberships for the hotel-motel tax-funded facility.
Grimes predicted that memberships at the county’s Aquatic Center would cost approximately the same as comparable membership fees at other nonprofit facilities, such as YMCAs.
Cheryl Nutter, who was appointed by the commission in 2010 as the project manager for the proposed Aquatic Center, said a survey of membership fees at similar facilities is complete. As an example of the amounts being considered for the county pool, Nutter offered that the YMCA in nearby Alleghany County, Va., charges $37 per month for a senior citizen membership.
She emphasized, however, that donations will be used to defray a portion of the fees at Greenbrier County’s Aquatic Center for those who cannot afford the full membership expense.
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