Council candidates disagree about city funding for middle school poolMel Olson said Thursday during the Ward 1 Mitchell City Council debate that the school district should use its opt-out money to keep the middle school pool open, but Allen Lepke and Nathan Truitt said they support the City Council’s decision to contribute more city money for the pool.
By: Seth Tupper, The Daily Republic
Mel Olson said Thursday during the Ward 1 Mitchell City Council debate that the school district should use its opt-out money to keep the middle school pool open, but Allen Lepke and Nathan Truitt said they support the City Council’s decision to contribute more city money for the pool.
The hour-long debate was staged in the amphitheater on Mitchell Technical Institute’s south campus in front of an audience of about 50. The first question posed to the candidates was about the middle school’s indoor pool, and whether they agree with the City Council’s recent decision to contribute up to $30,000 to keep the pool open at least one more year. The Board of Education is considering closing the pool as a cost-cutting measure.
Olson said the pool “is a school-district responsibility.”
“We have $700,000 of opt-out money that the citizens of this school district voted for, and they basically said we wanted to continue current programs,” Olson said. “And I believe that this is a current program.”
Olson added that perhaps the operation of an indoor pool is a good thing for multiple entities in the city to cooperate on, but he stressed again that “opt-out money should have been used for that purpose.”
The phrase “opt-out” describes a decision by a local government to collect more tax money than the state-imposed property-tax freeze would otherwise allow. Voters in the Mitchell School District approved an opt-out in 2002 that allows the district to collect up to $700,000 in additional tax money each year, but the additional money has been used sparingly because the school board has followed a policy of tapping it only for existing programs.
Lepke, the Ward 1 incumbent, said it’s his understanding that the opt-out money cannot be used for the pool.
“As far as I’ve been told, that could not be used because it’s a totally different line item in the budget and there’s no way that they can shift that money to use that,” he said.
After the debate, The Daily Republic sought clarification from school board member Dana Price, who was in the audience. He said the opt-out money could be used for the pool’s day-to-day expenses, such as water treatment and testing, but it cannot be used for capital expenses such as new decking. The school board has chosen to avoid spending opt-out money on the pool’s day-to-day expenses but is not barred from doing so, Price said.
During Lepke’s response to the pool question, he noted that he voted for the city’s contribution of up to $30,000 for the pool next school year. He is a former lifeguard who appreciates the importance of swimming, he said, and he considers the indoor pool an asset to the community.
Lepke also referenced the Mitchell Aquatic Club and its supporters, who are trying to assemble a total funding package of $90,000 to keep the pool open.
“They needed $30,000,” he said. “They’re looking for somebody to help them get started on a fund drive to raise the rest of it. If nobody steps up, they won’t raise the rest of the money, so this is kind of a little seed for them. It’s appropriated, but if they don’t raise the money, it does not get expended.”
Truitt said he supports the City Council’s pledge of money for the pool. He’s heard objections to putting more money into a “dead” pool, he said, but his understanding of the council’s pledge is that the money would go toward the pool’s operation and not to the pool itself. The official minutes from the council meeting at which the pledge was approved say that the council will commit money toward “the expenses to keep the pool open.”
Truitt also said the pool is important to the community.
“It’s important that we invest in the programs that benefit our children,” he said.
Prior to the Board of Education’s recent discussions about closing the pool, the City Council already was contributing $11,000 per year to it. The council voted unanimously at its May 18 meeting to contribute 33.3 percent of the expense to keep the pool open next year, up to $30,000 and including the already scheduled $11,000.
It’s been estimated that the total cost to keep the pool open next year will be $90,000. Representatives of the Mitchell Aquatic Club have said they are attempting to raise the remainder of the money, and the Board of Education has yet to make a final decision on the proposed closure.
Truitt, Lepke and Olson are running for one council seat from Ward 1. The top vote-getter in Tuesday’s election will win the position, which comes with a three-year term. The Ward 1 race is the only contested city government race this year.
Following are summaries of the candidates’ responses to some other questions that were posed at Thursday evening’s debate.
City manager: Lepke said he supports a recommendation from the long-term planning group Focus 2020 to hire a city manager, because Mitchell won’t always have a mayor who is willing to work full-time for part-time pay.
Olson said he opposes switching to a city-manager form of government, and he considers the Focus 2020 recommendation an “insult” to current city leaders. A city manager would be more expensive and less responsive to voters than a mayor, Olson said, and the City Council would likely be afraid to fire any city manager for fear that the firing would scare away potential applicants for the job.
Truitt said the city already has a full-time mayor, albeit one that works for part-time pay. He said the City Council should bump the mayor’s pay to a full-time level and then investigate whether a city manager is necessary.
Amphitheater: Truitt said it’s too early to take a position on a proposal from the Mitchell Prehistoric Indian Village to build a performance facility in the undeveloped, city-owned amphitheater alongside Lake Mitchell. He added, however, that he would stress three priorities during the consideration of the proposal: that no city funds be expended on the project, that there be protections against excessive noise levels that could emanate from the facility, and that an alternative spot be found for families and children who currently use the amphitheater as a winter sledding hill.
Lepke said he’s reserving judgment until after a July Fourth weekend event for which the City Council has granted the Indian Village permission to use the amphitheater. The concerts scheduled for that weekend will help determine the level of noise that could come from the facility, he said; after that, if concerns about the noise and the frequency of events can be addressed, it will be up to the Indian Village to raise money for the project.
Olson said his opinion of the project will depend on the frequency of the events that are planned. If the schedule is not too excessive, he said, the project should be allowed to go forward without city funding and with consideration given to finding an alternative sledding spot.
Arena: Olson said the case has not been made that the city needs another arena, because arena proponents’ main argument seems to be that a new arena could attract periodic state basketball tournaments. Olson said residents need a clearer vision from city leaders of how the city-owned Highland Conference Center and Corn Palace would be affected by a new arena; then, if residents support a new arena, Olson said, it should be built big enough to accommodate future needs.
Truitt said the city needs a new arena, but his support for an arena project is contingent on three priorities: that the building be contemporarily and attractively designed, that it be planned with long-term needs in mind and that it be funded in a way that would not unduly burden taxpayers. If the project goes forward, he added, it’s essential that it be a partnership involving the city, Dakota Wesleyan University and Avera Queen of Peace Health System.
Lepke said a past events-center task force that he served on produced a lot of good information that the city is now using to formulate new plans. He said a new arena could draw much more than basketball tournaments to the city, and he said a multi-entity partnership is the “only way” to make the project work.
Corn Palace improvements: The candidates were asked what they would do to improve the tourist experience at the Corn Palace. Olson proposed more interactive components, such as videos featuring the Palace’s corn grower and decorators and more opportunities for tourists to learn about the Palace’s history and culture.
Lepke called for more hands-on “edutainment,” investigation into a permanent gift shop, exhibits about corn-based ethanol, and increased marketing of other Mitchell attractions.
Truitt said a continued focus on improved advertising is needed, along with consideration of some Focus 2020 recommendations for the Palace and careful consideration of the cost of any new undertaking.
Street dances: Lepke and Olson said the city’s policy on street dances and other forms of outdoor dances is working, but Truitt disagreed and said the dances conflict with Mitchell’s small-town values.
“Those values are sometimes more important than the revenue we can gain by a street dance,” Truitt said, “and I simply don’t think it is conducive to promoting that small-town atmosphere that I think is important that we promote, because I think Mitchell needs to be a safe and a good place to raise our families.”
Unionization: When asked about the recent unionization of some city employees, Lepke said he thinks the move will harm the employees. A union creates a perception that the employees who join it are out to “get a few things over on” the city, Lepke said.
Truitt said opinions about the union are moot now that it has been created. The city’s only option now is to make the best of the situation and work with the union as effectively as possible, he said.
Olson said the union will change little, primarily because South Dakota law does not grant the union the power to strike. If anything, Olson said, the city may have to be more “polite” and “accommodating” in its negotiations with the employees who have unionized, and those employees may feel like they have a greater say in employment matters.
Nuisance laws: Truitt and Lepke said the city’s laws against nuisance properties — places that are abandoned, overgrown, etc. — are effective. Olson said he doesn’t know much about the city’s nuisance laws, but he does notice a lot of nuisance properties and figures that the city could be more aggressive in its approach to those properties.