WINCHESTER — Although the Frederick County Parks and Recreation Department indicates there is a high level of public interest in creating an indoor aquatics facility, county officials question if such an investment would be wise when more pressing matters need funding.
The matter came up at a fiscal year 2021 budget work session on Wednesday.
County Administrator Kris Tierney told the Board of Supervisors last week that without a tax increase, the county will not be able to fund any new positions or capital requests and would have to reduce requested operating costs by more than $4 million.
The county's Capital Improvements Plan (CIP) includes an $11.8 million, 35,000-square-foot indoor aquatics facility. Red Bud District Supervisor Blaine Dunn suggested having a voter referendum on Nov. 3 to gauge interest in funding such a project.
Tierney said, based on advice from County Attorney Roderick Williams, a referendum can’t be done to “test the waters.” It must be on a matter where the governing body has elected to proceed, subject to voter approval.
According to Williams, the referendum must be written as “shall the county borrow X number of dollars in bonds” to pay for an indoor aquatics facility, so a cost for the project would need to be confirmed.
He wasn't sure if approval from voters would obligate the board to move forward with the project.
Opequon District Supervisor Bob Wells said he likes the idea of a referendum but warned that if it passes and the board does not follow through with building an indoor aquatics facililty, “You would be opening up a serious Pandora’s Box.”
Interim Shawnee District Supervisor Gene Fisher suggested officials abandon talks about the project, given that the county is struggling to fund several critical public safety needs, such as replacing the county’s aging public safety radio system
“We don’t have a nickel to put on this," Fisher said. “We can’t even talk about that kind of thing. We’ve got safety issues and other things that we’ve got to address.”
Stonewall District Supervisor Judith McCann-Slaughter asked if neighboring Winchester and Clarke County would be interested in partnering on a shared indoor aquatics facility.
“The history has been although there is certainly a segment of the community that is very interested in this facility, it ends up coming against other needs and other priorities and it’s always sort of been pushed to the side,” Tierney said.
Parks officials are proposing that $800,000 be spent in the upcoming fiscal year to design the facility.
But Gainesboro District Supervisor J. Douglas McCarthy said he would hate to spend that much money only to find out in a referendum that residents don't want an indoor pool.
“It's one of those things where it would be great if we did have it,” but it's not a necessity, McCarthy said.
“I would leave it up to the taxpayer to vote in the referendum and if they say 'yes,' I will vote with what the taxpayers want,” McCarthy added.
Parks and Recreation Director Jason Robertson said after the meeting that parks officials should be able to come up with a cost for the project without spending hundreds of thousands of dollars in design fees.
Also at the meeting, McCann-Slaughter suggested drawing money from $2.5 million in unused capital funds for the current fiscal year and from $5 million in reserves to pay for the $6.8 million public safety radio system.
And McCarthy said he wants the board to move away from arbitrary funding formulas. Historically, Frederick County Public Schools has received 57% of local tax dollars, while the county gets 43%. McCarthy asked Tierney and County Finance Director Cheryl Shiffler to develop two different budget scenarios — one with the traditional 57/43 split and another prioritizing needs without an arbitrary split.
The next budget work session is scheduled for 6 p.m. Jan. 22 at the County Administration Building, 107 N. Kent St.
Attending the meeting were Board of Supervisors Chairman Charles DeHaven Jr. and board members J. Douglas McCarthy, Bob Wells, Shawn Graber, Judith McCann-Slaughter, Gene Fisher and Blaine Dunn. Finance Committee members Jeffrey Boppe and Angela Rudolph also were present.