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Wellness center debate gets heated

The Wadena City Council discussed the future of the proposed wellness center in two separate special meetings on Friday, May 27 and Wednesday, June 1.

In the May 27 meeting, the council discussed the proposed wellness center's operating budget with Jeff King of Ballard-King, who had provided the original pro-forma budget, and Jeff Browne of Wadena State Bank, who provided the numbers to an adjusted budget which showed a smaller operating deficit.

In the June 1 meeting, the council met with Steve Miller and Mike Brandt of Perkins+Will to discuss building plans and possible cuts.

The city had approached the state Legislature for about $14 million in bonding funds for the proposed wellness center, but there was no bonding bill this year, and the city has not received anything from the Legislature since the $750,000 for planning and design in fall 2010.

Jeff Browne and a committee which had met to discuss how the budget could be adjusted came up with a new projection estimating a $118,025 deficit, which is less than Ballard King's current estimated deficit of $188,775. Browne said the adjustments were based on the average of other towns' community centers.

The chart compared Wadena's proposed replacement community center with the budgets of community centers in Perham, Detroit Lakes, Milbank, Granite Falls and Crosby. With the exception of Detroit Lakes, the other towns also have an operating budget shortfall partly subsidized by the city.

"We've already been subsidizing our part-time recreation program in the summers. If we did it year round, what's it going to be?" Mayor Wayne Wolden asked.

Council member Toby Pierce continued to express reservations about costs. He headed up the original Community Center when it began in the mid-80s, and he said that when he left it was in the black.

The Wadena adjusted projection estimated more membership revenue, less labor costs, more repair and maintenance expenses, more expenses for pool chemicals and supplies, less insurance, added computer costs and added legal and professional costs. After yearly hospital rent of $50,000, the estimated city subsidy was $68,025.

Jeff Browne said that labor costs would be the main difference, partly depending on swimming hours with lifeguards or if the city has any unsupervised "swim at your own risk" hours.

King said the numbers on the Ballard-King budget were based on having two lifeguards at a time.

"Please understand that as we assemble these operating pro-formas ... we're not architects, we're not engineers, we don't have a horse in the race so to speak. We're just trying to provide you the tools necessary to make decisions," King said.

He said that, for example, a projected $150,000 deficit might turn out to be actually $120,000, and that being conservative sets up a greater potential for success.

He said he had worked with Brad Swenson line item by line item on the Ballard-King pro-forma budget.

Swenson said he was comfortable with the numbers.

"If you're comfortable with these projections, it's not going to hurt my feelings," King said in reference to the budget provided by Jeff Browne. "I don't want to say you're preparing for the worst case, but you don't want to be pie in the sky either, and too optimistic."

King said that the city was faced with tough choices and priorities: Essentials can't be left out, but on the other hand, recreational and quality of life projects keep getting deferred.

Pierce said he's concerned about the city spending money on lobbyists and projections, but even the rosiest scenarios still show a large shortfall that would need to be subsidized.

"I'm just saying, you're spending money like drunken sailors. You really don't have anything to show for it," Pierce said at the beginning of the meeting. "You know your budget's way out of balance, and I don't care what he comes up with."

"I'm going to walk out of here right now. You are a horse's ass," Jeff Browne responded.

He asked Pierce why the golf course was getting $40,000, and Pierce replied that the golf course needed it.

Toward the end of the meeting, away from the confrontation over the wellness center, Pierce and Jeff Browne talked about their plans to play racquetball together.

Mayor Wayne Wolden said he had heard feedback from businesses about losing revenue without the indoor hockey rink to bring in traffic and boost the economy.

In the June 1 meeting, Miller and Brandt met with the council to discuss the wellness center itself.

Pierce said he noticed that Community Center Drive was torn up.

Swenson said that asphalt had been ground up.

Swenson said that the Public Works department or Water and Sewer should be notified.

Miller said that they had permission to alter the street for utilities, and it would be patched up before fall. He and Brandt said that Electric Supervisor Dave Evans was notified.

Miller said that in order to have an operational wellness center by fall 2012, they would need to commence demolition on the old Leaf River Ag site by September 2011 and begin construction in October 2011.

Wolden said the city was told to be ready for the regular bonding bill in 2012.

2011 is an off-year for bonding, and there might be a special session.

"[State Representative] Mark Murdock said he has received assurances that we are in the bill that Larry Howes has, and that his expectation is that that will be used as a bargaining chip for the tax increase that the governor wants," Niles said.

Swenson asked if that had been made public, and Niles said no.

Miller and Brandt talked about the feedback they got from May 9 meetings with Tri-County Hospital, the Hockey Association and the Community Center organization.

The proposed ice arena would be NHL-sized and have 300-400 seats with a small climate-controlled room for some spectators.

Niles said the people involved in hockey were looking for what they could do without and aiming to replace what they had.

Wolden said he had told people that there will be no indoor hockey again this winter.

Niles said that if the wellness center and ice arena don't happen soon, the Hockey Association will be in a lot of hurt.

Brandt asked if hockey should be allowed to build on their own if there was no bonding bill.

The warm-water therapy pool came up in discussion as something that could be a more sanitary alternative to a spa and as a unique amenity for the region, since the nearest hospital therapy pools are in Fargo and St. Cloud.

Miller said medical privacy rules would need to apply to the therapy pool, but it could be used by the public during off hours.

The council and Perkins+Will talked about whether the main pool should be a recreational playground pool which would probably bring in more revenue, or a competition-sized rectangular pool which would give the high school an option of having a swim team down the road.

Council member Jeanette Baymler said she liked the idea of a competition-sized pool, and that as the old outdoor pool had lasted for 60 years until the tornado, the new pool should be something the community won't regret for the next 60 years.

Pierce asked what the cost of the wellness center would be if the therapy pool and one gym were to be eliminated.

The council also discussed options for multi-purpose rooms and the number of gyms and racquetball courts.