No dough for Dobson
“We had Freon leaks. We had to do something,” says Staufer, who claims the board “did the best it could do” when the project ballooned from a simple refrigeration system replacement job into a complete overhaul of the 24-year-old ice arena.
“Suddenly it was classified a basement unit and we had to put in exhaust systems in case of a fire. The building code changed, the capacity changed, we were faced with closing Dobson down,” he says. “Dobson is important to this town, it brings a lot of business, and we can’t just let it run down and expect it to still attract business.”
But Vail Town Council members aren’t buying the emergency argument that Staufer and other district officials have used to explain why the 10-month renovation went ahead without a cost-sharing plan in place.
So although the ice surface at Dobson has been smooth since January, thanks to a new state-of-the-art, $1 million refrigeration system, relations between the town and the district – historically wavering between polite and prickly – have become downright thorny in the wake of the district’s $2.6 funding request from the council.
Recreation District officials say the $2.6 million will cover everything from additional fire exit doors to a new loading dock to upgrades to the electrical system – items the town required during the approval process.
“If you are a tenant and you go put in a new kitchen without letting your landlord know and then try to bill him, he is probably going to laugh at you,” says Councilman Bill Jewitt, who along with his council colleagues declined the request in an informal straw poll of the council on April 2.
Council members weren’t laughing, but most said $2.6 million is too much too late.
“They had plenty of time to ask us for money,” says Councilwoman Diana Donovan. “The (Dobson) project was delayed for almost a year. They were trying to keep it very quiet and now they want the town to pay for it. If that’s what they wanted, they should have approached us beforehand, not after the fact by saying, “Oh, by the way, since you are the landlord, you need to pay for this.'”
A 1993 lease between the town and the district for Dobson, the Vail Nature Center, Vail Golf Course, Ford Park and other town properties spells out that the district raises the funds to operate these town-owned recreational assets as part of its mission to provide recreation within the district.
Major additions and renovations, according to the lease, are the town’s responsibility – a clause, district officials have repeatedly pointed to over the past year to back up their argument that the town is responsible for at least part of the renovation costs of Dobson.
But there is a catch. The lease, which doesn’t expire until 2015, requires the district to “develop a maintenance schedule for each respective improvement … which shall be subject to the approval of the town.”
Though the district went through the approval process for the reconstruction of Dobson two years ago, council members say, district officials never asked the town to share the cost of a new refrigeration system, a new loading dock or a new addition that includes a green room, meeting and office space.
“I think if they wanted to the town of Vail to pay for those improvements, that should have been a discussion that we should have had prior to construction,” says Vail Mayor Pro-Tem Rod Slifer. “The council should have had input on what was improved prior to being asked to foot the bill.”
District officials say they had to have financing in place as a prerequisite for the upgrade to even be considered for town approval.
“We were strong financially and we were able to bond the amount, and we had to do it,” says district board member Nancy Stevens, who is running for re-election for one of three vacant positions on the five-seat district board in the May 7 election.
So in 2001 the district issued revenue bonds – not subject to voter approval – for $3.5 million, incurring a 20-year debt obligation of $270,000 annually, which is nearly 15 percent of the district’s annual income.
Staufer says that debt obligation isn’t amounting to a “financial crisis” as some critics have said, charging that the debt payments drain other programs like golf.
“That money is well within the budget,” Staufer says. “It’s not coming out of golf. We have already spent $2 million on the golf course in the last couple of years.”
Ross Davis Jr., who is also running for re-election, says the town never had any intentions to help the district pay for what he calls an “improvement to town property, courtesy of the VRD.”
“Since 1996 when we started planning for Dobson, they have consistently denied the use of RETT (real estate transfer tax) to fund recreation facilities,” he says. Instead of joining in on the financial burden, the town during the approval process “gleefully dumped additional conditions and off-site work requirements on the project,” including a loading dock, two pedestrian bridges and the rebuilding of West Meadow Drive in front of Dobson, he says.
“My personal favorite is the Art in Public Places (Board’s) gate, the only place in Vail you can find a lynx,” Davis says dryly referring to the gate in front of the loading dock that features an iron-wrought version of the rare wildcat. The town’s requirement to add an artistic touch to the gate cost the district an extra $15,000.
In addition, the district was required to add 12 new exit doors after a fire inspection threatened to reduce the arena’s capacity from 1,500 to 1,000. Since the renovation, the arena has been certified for a capacity of 2,700.
The only reason the town was approached with the $2.6 million request is because the council asked for it, Davis says.
“(Councilman) Chuck (Ogilby) said in March that he feels the town should pay for part of the renovation,” Davis says. “We thought the council wanted to see a breakdown of the expenses, and that’s what we did.”
The “break-down” of the expenses was delivered to the council in form of a letter at the end of March – apparently by accident – and resulted in at least a temporary breakdown of communications.
“I was offended,” says Donovan, describing the tone of the letter as a “you owe us demand” rather than a funding request.
Councilman Greg Moffet, who was most vocal in denying the district’s informal bid for funds April 2, also says the letter rubbed him the wrong way.
“I reacted to what I saw as a demand,” he says of the letter, which according to district officials was never intended for the eyes of the council but was supposed to serve as a frank piece of information between Vail Town Manager Bob McLaurin and Pieters.
Following the April 2 discussion, Moffet says he has changed his mind. “They can always come back and talk to us. We are a pretty reasonable group,” he says. “I have learned that (the letter) is not a demand and that changes my receptiveness to a discussion.”
Stevens says the letter was a mistake and should have never been given to the council members.
“There should have been a presentation to go with the funding request,” she says.
The district will likely make a more formal plea in an effort to recoup some money – $2.6 million or less – as part of a quarterly meeting with the town council Tuesday at 1 p.m.
“What we are saying is this upgrade had to be done, but I don’t think the VRD should have to pay for street improvements or the artistic gate they made us put in. Recreation dollars shouldn’t be used to fill pot holes, so we would be appreciative of anything (the town) could come up with,” Stevens says.
Some council members say they would be open to a repeat partial funding request, but not $2.6 million. Others say the facts haven’t changed, and their minds haven’t, either.
“We should pay them for those improvements that the town required to them to make,” says Slifer of expenditures, including the “lynx gate.”
“I’d be willing to discuss this further,” says Jewitt, adding that “in the worst case for (the district), we’ll say no again.”
Councilman Dick Cleveland says he’ll likely vote no again “because it is nice for for them if they can budget for us, but we have other capital projects on hold. I don’t like being given a bill without being asked whether I approve of it before.”
Donovan says her mind on the subject is made up.
“I don’t see the facts changing, it’s pretty black and white to me. We are all dying for money to pay our bills. We don’t have the money to make them look good.”
Geraldine Haldner covers Vail, Minturn and Red Cliff. She can be reached at 949-0555, ext. 602 or at firstname.lastname@example.org