Big Rapids commission retreat discusses recreation authority

RESPECT THE AUTHORITY: Big Rapids Director of Public Works Mark Gifford explains the process and potential benefits of creating a regional recreation authority between the city and the school district. A number of possible projects were discussed during a city commission retreat, but legislation will have to change before an authority could be created.  (Pioneer photo/Adam Gac)

RESPECT THE AUTHORITY: Big Rapids Director of Public Works Mark Gifford explains the process and potential benefits of creating a regional recreation authority between the city and the school district. A number of possible projects were discussed during a city commission retreat, but legislation will have to change before an authority could be created. (Pioneer photo/Adam Gac)

BIG RAPIDS — A partnership unlike any other in Michigan could mean big changes for recreation in Big Rapids.

During Monday’s city commission retreat, city officials discussed the need to provide area residents with venues for recreation.

“We’ve had an ongoing discussion talking about the needs of the greater Big Rapids community in terms of recreation and in terms of facilities,” said Big Rapids Department of Public Works Director Mark Gifford. “And how we can work together to meet those needs.”

Gifford and city officials met with representatives from other communities over the past six months to discuss meeting a population’s need for recreation. Following their discussions, a plan of action became apparent, according to Gifford

“The best way for us to work together and to address the growing need for community recreation facilities is to create a recreation authority,” Gifford said.

The proposed regional recreation authority would be a partnership between the city and the Big Rapids Public School District with the power to levy a millage on residents within the school district boundaries, Gifford said.

The laws governing recreational authorities have been on the books for about 15 years, Gifford said. Currently, cities are allowed to partner with townships and counties, but partnerships currently are not available between cities and schools, he added.

“We’ve talked to a number of our legislators about the potential of changing the regional recreation authority statute and we’ve had a lot of support,” Gifford said.

Officials met with leaders from youth sports in the community to hear what the organizations will need in the future, Gifford said. City Manager Steve Sobers also met with community seniors to discuss their needs.

“This authority would be a really positive thing for the whole community,” Gifford said. “The authority will be able to address issues, which individually the city or the schools would never be able to do.”

Several concepts are outlined as potential projects for the authority.

Converting the unused Hillcrest Elementary building to a community center is one project Gifford said he is particularly excited for.

“It’s really exciting on a number of levels,” he said. “It’s taking a facility that’s maybe detracting from a neighborhood by being vacant and putting it to real positive use. It gives an outlet for seniors and others as a focal point for recreation in the community.”

Equipping the community center with additional facilities could increase the availability of gymnasium space for indoor sports teams, Gifford said.

Another idea being discussed is the consolidation of athletic facilities based on the sports they are used for, Gifford said.

“Right now, parents with kids who play baseball could be at any one of the elementary schools at any given night,” he said. “One idea is to have all the baseball facilities at one location.”

Big Rapids High School was discussed as a potential location for baseball diamonds, while soccer fields could be consolidated in Riverside Park.

Phase four of the Riverwalk is another potential project for the authority to undertake, Gifford said.

“Creating a direct connection from River Street to the university or crossing the river to connect at Highbanks Park are both projects we’ve discussed,” he said.

Providing the Downtown Big Rapids Farmers Market with a more permanent facility also is a potentiality.

“One thing we’ve always wanted to do is have a pavilion or a home for the farmers market,” Gifford said. “(Building something) where it currently sits isn’t really a possibility.”

Creating a permanent home for the farmers market could change winters in Big Rapids as well.

“We introduced a portable ice rink at Hemlock Park two years ago and have had great success with that,” Gifford said. “One concept is to build a facility which is the home to the farmers market in the summer and the home to the ice rink in the winter. We looked at the property directly across from city hall as a potential location for that.”

An athletic and band facility at the high school also was discussed among the list of recreational needs in the community, Gifford said.

“Those are all exciting things to think about, but they’re also expensive,” he said. “The authority would themselves be allowed to levy millage. They’re capped at 2 mils by the current legislation and there is nothing proposed to increase that.”

Within the school district boundaries, 1 mil can generate as much as $475,000, which means the recreation authority would be capable of providing almost one million dollars a year for improvement projects, Gifford said. One mill equates to $1 per $1,000 of a property’s taxable value.

“We’re really excited to continue to make Big Rapids a destination,” he said.

Before the regional authority can be established, the legislation has to be changed. Big Rapids Mayor Mark Warba discussed the ongoing process of reshaping the law.

“I think there is going to be safety in numbers in Lansing,” Warba said. “The more people who speak out on this, the more positive traction it will gain. The changes being proposed are relatively simple and direct. To me, that’s what the appeal is.”

Superintendent of Big Rapids Public Schools Tim Haist also spoke in favor of the authority at Monday’s retreat.

“We work together with the city all the time,” Haist said. “Rather than avoiding duplicating efforts, we can work together. It just makes more sense for the community. I think this will be of great benefit, not only to our students but to the community.”

In other business:

Bob Wilcox of Fleis and Vandenbrink presented those at the retreat with information on the upcoming implementation of a surcharge system for the treatment of wastewater.

The system will charge non-residential wastewater sources based on the level of treatment their outgoing water requires, according to Wilcox. Each year, the system could generate around $40,000 in revenue for the wastewater treatment facility, he added.

Sobers explained the method used to establish a baseline for residential wastewater content.

“Imagine the sewer system as a tree that goes out into the community,” Sobers said. “We picked a branch of that tree, which was exclusively residential, and ran a sample test on that to get the residential wastewater numbers.”

Big Rapids is on the forefront in Michigan with regards to establishing a surcharge system, according to Wilcox.

“Well if we can be state leader in recreation, then why not in high-strength waste as well,” Warba said.

A study on the compensation for non-bargaining employees of the city was also discussed during the retreat.

Sobers presented the results of the study, which recommended replacing the current two-tier pay system with a single-tier system, which does not cap new employees at a rate 10 percent below that of existing staff. The study also recommends the implementation of a merit-based raise system.

Switching between the two systems would be a 13-year process, but some positions could be caught up to the median in three to four years, according to Sobers.

“I don’t know if I would just instantly raise somebody a couple thousand dollars,” he said. “But if you bring salaries along over a reasonable period of time, people are happy to know they’re going to get consistent pay raises.”

Warba and several commissioners did not disagree with the findings of the study, but are concerned that the study’s cost of might have been better used, considering the recommendations paralleled those of a similar study performed in 2001.

The study’s recommendations will be reviewed and commissioners will vote at the Sept. 8 board meeting on adopting those recommendations, possibly only as guidelines.

“This was important to be done at this time,” Commissioner Lynn Anderson said. “It’s unfortunate it cost $20,000 or less, but it was important for the changing of the guard to have this done by a professional.”

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Posted by Adam Gac

Adam is the Pioneer City/County Reporter, covering government in Mecosta County. He can be reached by e-mail at agac@pioneergroup.com or by phone at (231) 592-8347.

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