Wellness Center issues explained to city officials

Posted June 12, 2013 at 2:18 pm

The Twin Lakes Wellness Center remains center stage in the news these days as the facility’s Board of Directors continue to work to find ways to dig itself out of financial debt and at the same time increase membership, thus increasing revenues to operate the fitness center.

The Wellness Center again was discussed at length last week by a few of its board members and a handful of supporters–this time at a meeting with the Albany City Council. The issue was discussed at the council’s regular monthly June session.

Pastor Bobby Grant began the dialogue by thanking Mayor Nicky Smith and the city council for their past support, saying they had stuck with them over almost 10 years. He continued by saying he would like to see the city get one-half ownership of the property back.

Wellness Center board member Tim Armstrong then read an impassioned email from a patron of the facility, who explained how much it had helped her in many ways.

Mayor Smith noted that when the county donated funds recently to help with the center’s electric and propane bills, it came from LGEA funds, but added the city only has a little over $20,000 total in its LGEA (Local Government Economic Assistance) fund. “Legally, we can’t (give money). It’s city taxpayer money.”

Although the county owns all of the deed for the property, since the grant funds were applied for jointly, each government entity–city and county–would be responsible for repaying up to a half-million dollars each should the Center cease to operate as a fitness facility prior to June 2016.

It was noted the Wellness Center currently has 627 total members. However, counting the fact that family memberships may cover up to two or more persons who use the facility, there were 280 paying members as of last Tuesday, June 4.

Wellness Center supporter Roger Barber asked the mayor “If it closes, what do you do then?”

The mayor replied they would have to look at that if that were ever to occur.

Grant said the Twin Lakes membership rates were lower than any other such programs around. He also said the board has learned from its past mistakes and further noted that propane was six times higher than natural gas, the latter of which the facility is currently switching to help save hopefully tens of thousands per year in fuel costs.

Grant continued that during the winter months, the facility was “between a rock and a hard place” because they couldn’t shut the heat off and possibly cause damage to the building, but yet the cost to keep the heat going had added up.

The long-time proponent of the Wellness Center project also said the original architect of the facility said the original unit that was installed–that many had said was too large and expensive–had to be there.

Another aspect of the current equipment that is being replaced, according to Wellness Center officials, is that it will be up to the county and state to determine what happens with it. However, it apparently can’t be used to put back into the facility, but rather go back to the grant itself.

City legal advisor Norb Sohm also told the Wellness Center supporters that the city cannot donate to any entity without having control or ownership over any of it.

In a brief switch in discussing the pool, which the board also hopes to see reopen, Councilman James “Smitty” Smith said he would like to see the board work with the schools and offer swimming classes to students.

Grant said he would like to see the high school have its own swim team and the board had practically made a promise that all fourth graders would be given the opportunity to use the pool to learn how to swim. He further stated that the board was looking into a flat “swim fee” rate to charge anyone who wanted to use the pool.

Wellness Center Director Charlotte Dick estimated the total current outstanding bills for propane and electric was about $70,000 combined, down somewhat from a few weeks ago when the board members and public met with the Clinton County Fiscal Court and prior to the court making a one-time $20,000 input to the Center from its LGEA account.

Some board members noted that in the beginning, it was first thought the facility would be using natural gas. However, at the aforementioned fiscal court meeting, it was noted Judge/Executive Lyle Huff had taken responsibility for having propane installed. The judge said at that time that the former natural gas company was in the process of bankruptcy and he didn’t want to take the chance of natural gas not being there. However, a couple of years later, things changed and a new company is now operating the natural gas system.

Wellness Center board member Tim Armstrong, however, noted that during that time, other facilities, i.e. the schools, that use natural gas were never affected and never lost their natural gas as a heating source.

Grant said it was frustrating paying a bill the Wellness Center board had no control over and said the necessity for the boiler system that was installed was challenged time and time, not only by board members but some members of the fiscal court.

Councilman Smith agreed that board should have had more input.

When the grant application to construct a YMCA was first initiated, the site was to be an area in the Clinton County Industrial Park along Hwy. 90, northwest of Albany. Later, the YMCA status couldn’t be reached, but funds could be applied for in the form of a fitness center, that guaranteed that at least 51 plus percent of low to moderate income residents in the county could afford to use it.

Also, the location was changed from the industrial park to its current location on property owned by the school district. Somewhere in that process, the deed went from half to the city and half to the county to 100 percent to the county, thus making it basically not legal for the city to give financial support.

Councilman Tony Delk said the Wellness Center was “a great thing…and still is a great thing,” adding “you are the board and need to make the decisions.”

Grant also noted that originally, five architects were looked at to design the building and said it was “suggested” by some to go with the one eventually hired. He further stated, “If we had of had the right, we would have fired (the architect),” he said.

Again Grant told the council he’d like to see the city again become part-owner. Also, it still isn’t clear how the city’s share of the deed got left out in the shuffle.

He added a lot of people, including all the board members, had worked very hard because they have compassion for the kids. It would be bad to see something this great and then have to lose it.

In the meantime, the board and its supporters continue to work to find solutions to not only getting the debt paid, but main streaming revenues to keep the facility operating.

They are currently trying to raise more money and memberships and anyone, it was noted, could sponsor a member or a family. The board is also selling tickets on a grill that will be given away as a fundraiser and more details on that will be announced.

Mayor Smith concluded the conversation with the board–with no action being taken–by saying he appreciated the work the board has done and although he personally would like to see the city be able to donate funds to the Center, legally they couldn’t. He did say he would look into the deed on the building later on.

The council also took care of other items of business at its meeting last Tuesday and a separate article appears in this week’s edition, beginning on page 1.