Wednesday, Jan. 23, 2008

Aquatic center approved for Lakelands is delayed

New council decides to shift city priorities

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Signaling a significant shift in the status quo, Gaithersburg’s new City Council rearranged the city’s priorities over the weekend by choosing to put a long-planned aquatic center in the Lakelands on hold while fast tracking a new upcounty senior center and promising to beef-up police spending.

‘‘The question is can we afford to absorb loss in the next couple of years,” Assistant City Manager Tony Tomasello said Tuesday. ‘‘There are limited capital funds in the fiscal year 2009 and 2010 budgets.”

For many of the city leaders, making residents feel safer in their neighborhoods by providing more resources to Gaithersburg police is a clear priority, and their decisions at Saturday’s session of the annual strategic planning retreat reflect that.

Mayor Sidney A. Katz and the City Council with its three new members participated in their first retreat session together beginning with a public input session at City Hall on Monday night. After inclement weather cancelled a Thursday session, they resumed again on Saturday for a day-long retreat at the Upcounty Senior Center. Usually held in Baltimore or Annapolis, this year’s retreat was conducted in Gaithersburg to allow more transparency and enable more public participation, said Acting City Manager Jim Arnoult.

City department heads and executives made presentations on their budget requests and concerns on Saturday. The unexpected decision to table plans for the Aquatic and Recreation Center came after Tomasello advised that if the city built the $25 million facility at this time, it would exceed capital funding in the already tight city budget. Operating costs for the center are expected to exceed revenues, he said.

Problems could be compounded if the housing and construction market continues to decline and causes the city to lose anticipated revenues, Tomasello said.

The center, to be located at Route 28 and Edison Park Drive on the Lakelands border, was approved for development in May 2001 with a $14 million pricetag. Construction of the now projected $25 million center was scheduled to begin in June, with plans to open in 2010.

The city planned to fund the bulk of the project, starting with $5 million the Aventiene community recently contributed as part of a development deal. The county was expected to provide $6 million in funding over three years and the state was funding the approximately $1.5 million design.

The mayor and council on Saturday were unanimous in agreeing the project should be delayed, at least for a while. They asked Tomasello to come back with a revised 10-year growth plan that puts the aquatic center on an extended timetable and accelerated the senior center project.

Councilman Henry A. Marraffa Jr., who voted in support of the center, said: ‘‘I’m finding myself having a complete reversal on this. I keep backing up and finding myself saying ... ‘Look guys, we can’t afford to do this.’”

Referring to recent city estimates that 70 percent of users of the center would not be Gaithersburg residents, he said county leaders ‘‘are the ones that need to build something like this, not us.”

Freshman Councilwoman Cathy Drzyzgula said building the center as planned is ‘‘something we would never let a developer do, and I think that sets a bad example. ... Before we decide, I would like to see more real numbers on what it costs to run facilities like these.”

Councilman Ryan Spiegel, another first-term leader, agreed to a delay but said he ‘‘is a believer in looking at every possibility.” He asked about bucking Gaithersburg’s ‘‘pay-as-you-go tradition” to cover the center’s costs.

But that notion was quickly rejected by Katz, Marraffa and Councilman Michael Sesma.

‘‘I don’t believe that creating a recreational project that has operating costs higher than revenues is a project vital to the city,” said Sesma.

Once the aquatic center discussion was finished, the topics of public safety and senior citizens were addressed.

Kentlands resident Brett Cosor, an Olde Towne businessman and longtime chairman of the Police Chief’s Advisory Council, attended the retreat wearing a gorilla costume to emphasize the ‘‘800-pound gorilla in the room,” he said.

After hearing results of a recent resident survey Monday, he told the mayor and council that despite high ratings on ‘‘quality of life,” Gaithersburg ‘‘flunked” the performance test.

‘‘People don’t feel safe,” he said. ‘‘Oftentimes we say that Gaithersburg is the greatest city in the world, but we’re not. We have some areas to improve,” Cosor told the mayor and council.

After hearing Police Chief John King’s budget presentation Saturday, the mayor and council asked city officials to look into a defined benefits retirement plan and to consider mid-year retention bonuses for city police among other measures to help with officer retention and recruitment.

‘‘I’m going to suggest that we not wait, I think we need to do something right now,” to keep officers on board and hire quality new ones, Katz said. He said he wasn’t shocked by the survey results that showed many city residents don’t feel safe. ‘‘Whether its perception or reality, sometimes they blend together.”

And during Monday’s session at City Hall, 16 senior citizens wearing buttons that read ‘‘No child left behind, no senior overlooked,” made their case for a new and improved upcounty senior center. Citing a rapidly growing senior population, they asked the mayor and council to appoint a committee of senior center members and city and county officials that would define critical components of a new center, identify partners and resources and employ an architect.

And several Gaithersburg Affordable Housing Coalition representatives asked for more affordable housing opportunities, perhaps funded through private-public partnerships.

The city leaders decided that plans for a new upcounty senior center are a priority for fiscal year 2009, which begins July 1, and suggested that if more than 150 affordable housing units were added to a center design, the county’s Housing Opportunities Commission might partner in providing design and construction funds. Land from the future Casey East development located at Route 355 and Watkins Mill Road has been donated for a new senior center, but Sesma suggested looking at larger parcels.

While they were at it, the mayor and council also suggested affordable housing opportunities be pursued at Orchard Pond apartments off Clopper Road and at the city-owned ‘‘Wye-site” in Olde Towne.

Another key decision was to consider the future of the Gaithersburg Police Department in a ‘‘sub-retreat.” They agreed to ‘‘look at pros and cons,” considering whether the department should continue as a supplemental agency to the Montgomery County Police, or become a standalone agency or something in between.

‘‘I couldn’t see us more united than on police,” said Councilman Jud Ashman.

‘‘If we couldn’t be united on that front, we’ve got a problem,” Katz said.

Learn more

For a closer look at the city’s strategic plans, visit www.gaithersburgmd.gov.