Editor’s note: This is the first half of a two-part series regarding the planned Big Horn Community Center. An article in Saturday’s edition of The Press will focus on funding for the center and its operations.
RANCHESTER — Several Tongue River Valley residents are voicing concerns over the proposed Big Horn Community Center to be built by Sheridan County School District 1 on property recently purchased by the SCSD 1 Recreation District.
On Aug. 9, a building owned by the Apostolic Lutheran Church, and rented by SCSD 1 as a temporary bus barn and bus stop location, burned due to an electrical fire started by wiring in a school district vehicle. The building was located near the “Big Horn Y” where highways 87 and 335 intersect.
Because SCSD 1 carried insurance on the building, the insurance company provided $950,000 to the district to rebuild a structure of similar size. The SCSD 1 Recreation District, a separate entity, decided to purchase the 2.77 acre property where the building would be located from the church for $375,000. The idea is that once the insurance money is used to construct the new building, the recreation district would own it and it would be used as a community center for Big Horn. In turn, recreation district board members said they hope that a nonprofit organization wishing to operate and manage the center will be found.
However, as details of the arrangement have emerged, some area residents have alleged improper procedure and a lack of transparency.
Ranchester resident Susan Porden said she is concerned that the process has been conducted behind closed doors in executive sessions of the recreation and SCSD1 board meetings.
“My concerns are about money, closed door meetings, transparency and a poorly managed school district,” Porden said.
SCSD 1 Superintendent Marty Kobza said the school board has not discussed the property purchase in any school board executive sessions, though Zac Cummins, recreation district board chair, did say his board discussed the purchase in executive session and that this is a legal right of the board.
The Wyoming Open Meetings Act does specify that boards can discuss real estate matters in executive session, “To consider the selection of a site or the purchase of real estate when the publicity regarding the consideration would cause a likelihood of an increase in price.” Minutes from an executive session can only be accessed by the public through a court order.
SCSD1 Business Manager Jeremy Smith and Cummins noted that the idea for purchasing the land had been discussed for several years and was agreed upon several days before the fire occurred. This statement is confirmed by minutes taken at the regular board meeting of the recreation district Aug. 6, three days before the bus barn fire. The minutes state that at 7:05 p.m. the board went into executive session to discuss real estate, presumably the purchase of the church-owned land. After the executive session, the regular meeting minutes note “Motion from Zac to proceed with property acquisition contingent on financing.”
Cummins confirmed that this was in reference to the property owned by the church.
Several weeks later, minutes from the SCSD 1 Recreation District special meeting dated Sept. 26, 2012, included a motion “to proceed with purchase of said property on HWY 335 and for (Zac) and Jeremy to work on financing from a local bank.” The motion carried.
At the same Sept. 26 meeting, a motion was made and passed that reorganized the recreation district’s structure. It states “In order to reduce expenses and have more funds available for recreational activities and property, the Recreation Board will eliminate the Recreation Director position and staff effective October 31, 2012. Existing funds to be at the discretion of the Recreation Board. Programming will remain in effect until October 31, 2012.”
Cummins said this operational change was made due to the board’s belief that their funding could be used more effectively.
“The recreation district had been talking for some time about, ‘Is the way we are doing things, the best way to be doing things?'” Cummins said. “We had it actually pointed out to us in our budget (that) we were spending it needlessly. So we started looking outside the box to spend…differently. We were spending money on staff and wages and not programming and wanted to get more programming out there.
“The main reason we want a center out in Big Horn is we saw what it did for the Tongue River community,” Cummins added. “We really weren’t feeling like we were getting enough programming for our dollar.”
Operating a community center
Porden questioned how the district could move ahead with a purchase of property meant to house a several thousand square-foot, $950,000 community center, restructure to eliminate staff and become a grant making organization while committing to a $375,000 loan.
Cummins said that it is possible that the district will re-hire staff in the future to run the facility if necessary.
“We are looking at the fact that we can be flexible,” Cummins said. “When it is built we can choose to hire staff again and run programs and charge for programs and that sort of thing. We can choose to find a third party to run it. If we did hire a new director moving forward, we would want someone with a recreation background and experience running a recreation district.”However, Cummins said he hopes that a nonprofit organization will be found or formed to take over management and expenses of the community center.
He said he has spoken with possible donors as well as nonprofits about using or managing the center but declined to provide names.
Designs still open for review
Porden also noted that a “Request for Qualifications from firms/individuals for design/build services in connection with the Big Horn Community Center” was released as a public notice Dec. 4.
At their regular board meeting Dec. 18, the SCSD 1 board awarded the construction bid to Odell Construction.
But, a meeting with Big Horn residents to make them aware of the project and solicit ideas for the building, was not held until Jan. 9.
“We are concerned that Sheridan County School District 1 Recreation District monies are being used to provide an unfunded purchase of property in the amount of ($375,000), for a town of 490 residents, 3.3 miles out of town, for people who have never requested and never had any input in to a design that was already approved and given to a contractor to build,” Porden said.
Kobza countered in a recent interview with The Press that the awarded contract is a “design build” contract, meaning that companies did not specify designs, rather companies that competed for the contract simply agreed to construct a 7,000-square-foot building at a cost of no more than $950,000.
The layout and design of the building has not been finalized and citizens still have time to make comments to the school board or recreation board about what they would like to see the building contain.
“This is not being kept a secret, everything is on the website if anyone wants to see it,” Kobza said. “If people care to give feedback they can do so through the recreation district or through the school board or through email.”
Porden also feels that the recreation district’s real reason for purchasing the property was not for a community center, but to help SCSD 1 secure the site for permanent use as a bus stop.
This allegation is supported by an email sent by Smith to Karen Walters on Dec. 5. Walters had been elected as a SCSD 1 school board member, but was not sworn in for official duties until the Dec. 18 board meeting. She wrote to Smith after seeing the Dec. 4 RFQ in the newspaper.
“Can you please get me up to date on the community center in Big Horn. I saw the ad for designers in the paper. I have had calls about who is paying for it and why Big Horn gets a community center when the (recreation) district has not given any money to TRVCC. What kind of building is being looked at, how is it paid for, and what is the school board’s role?” Walters asked Smith.
Smith provides an email response, the majority of which is reproduced verbatim on the SCSD 1 website under the “Rumor Watch” tab, but a portion of Smith’s letter is left out.
That portion reads, “The third and final thing to make sure that you understand is the value of the BHCC location. That is a bus stop for us that produces approximately $450,000 per year in tuition revenue … from kids that live in District #2 and attend our schools. It was absolutely critical that we didn’t lose that stop to someone else’s control. The Recreation District understood that and acted very quickly and responsibly to secure the site for that purpose. Even though it required a bank note, as mentioned earlier, the price actually paid by the Rec District will be severely reduced by the anticipated donations.”
“The one thing the SCSD 1 board has never said out loud is what was put in that memo, that ‘the third and final thing to make sure you understand is the importance of the BHCC location,'” Porden said. “That was the whole reason this thing came about.”
During a recent interview with The Press, Smith said that safety is actually the district’s primary concern with bus stops.
“If you are going to have a bus stop somewhere, our priority always is the students’ safety exiting and entering the bus,” he said.
“We could have a bus stop in many places and that just happens to be a good spot for us,” Kobza added. “If we didn’t have that (location) we would have another location nearby. Is it a convenient spot? Absolutely. Is it safe? Absolutely. But is it our only option? No.”
Beyond poor communication with Big Horn residents, Porden said she believes that the recreation district had gotten ahead of itself in planning. Because of the property’s zoning as rural residential, the recreation district is required to apply for a Conditional Use Permit from the county to operate the community center. Even though the RFQ notice was advertised on Dec. 4, the CUP was not filed with the county until Feb. 15.
The permit is set to be discussed at the April 4 County Planning and Zoning Commission meeting. The commission can recommend denial or approval of the permit, or table it for discussion at a later time. If it is not tabled, then it will advance to the county commissioners for their consideration.
Due to advertising requirements, the earliest the commissioners could vote on the permit would be in May. Smith said construction would begin after an approval from the county.