The $4.3 million question facing city leaders Monday isn’t whether to buy the old downtown YMCA.
They purchased the 43-year-old building months ago.
The question is how to pay off the $4.3 million debt they assumed with the purchase.
Monday is the Spokane City Council’s last chance to accept the Spokane County Commission’s offer to use existing voter-approved Conservation Futures property taxes to pay for the acquisition, which would effectively become a part of Riverfront Park.
Even though a study, which cost $17,000 and was demanded by the City Council, has recommended that the city take the money, it might not do so. It’s also unclear where the City Council would find $4.3 million to pay off the debt without Conservation Futures.
Spokane Mayor Mary Verner said in an interview earlier this month that without another researched and viable alternative on the table, the city should take the county’s offer. If it doesn’t, the city may need further budget cuts to make room for the YMCA debt, she said.
“If I had a pot of money to just hold on to the property as speculative property and if I could tear down or somehow occupy that building so it’s not a vacant, derelict building in the middle of our prime, riverfront park, then I would hold on to it,” Verner said. “But those aren’t our circumstances right now.”
Buying the Y with Conservation Futures would require the parks department to tear it down and restore the land to a natural state.
The city-commissioned study, which was completed by Jeffrey Lembeck, said the most profitable option for the land would be turning it into office space. But his analysis said it will take 10 years for the building to start generating a profit.
Councilman Richard Rush questions the study’s conclusion and said he believes the site could generate a profit as soon as 2016. He said leasing the building would keep the park safer, especially considering job losses in the Spokane Police Department.
“It’s going to be imperative to have life and people and eyes there,” he said.
The Park Board agreed in 2006 to buy the old Y, which is surrounded by Riverfront Park and sits along the south shore of Spokane Falls. Because of an earlier agreement with the YMCA, the parks department had the right to step in to buy it if another sale was on the table. When a developer with plans to build a condo tower offered $5.3 million, the Park Board intervened.
The board put $1 million down on the building and last year requested Conservation Futures funding for the rest. County commissioners supported the concept.
But the City Council has delayed accepting the money for about a year. Some on the council have argued it would be better to have development along that portion of the falls so the land can generate tax dollars and attract people to the core of downtown.
Supporters of tearing down the Y, including Expo ’74 President King Cole, say using Conservation Futures money would preserve the public’s view of the city’s most prized natural landmark without raising taxes.
City Council President Joe Shogan said that if the City Council refuses the money, members will have to “be prepared to go to the taxpayers” to explain how the debt will be paid. Shogan and Councilman Bob Apple are the only council members who have publicly voiced support for accepting the money.
Critics like Rush say Conservation Futures, which raises about $1.5 million annually, was not meant to be used to purchase developed land. The county plans to pay off the $4.3 million over 20 years so that the program can continue to pursue other purchases of open space in the short term. But that means the total cost would increase because of interest.
“I have a lot of concerns about putting such a large debt in Conservation Futures for such a small piece of land,” City Councilman Jon Snyder said.
Former City Councilman Steve Eugster has threatened a lawsuit on the purchase. He argues that the land doesn’t qualify for Conservation Futures under state law, in part, because the land isn’t open space since it has a building on it. City and county attorneys argue that use of the program is legal.
Mike Allen, the city councilman who was replaced on the council by Snyder earlier this week, said that after examining the study, he believes that using Conservation Futures money is the city’s most financially responsible option. Allen, a critic of the Park Board’s decision to buy the land, said it was important for the council to require the independent study to ensure there weren’t better options.
“There were too many tax dollars at stake to go on a hunch or a feeling,” he said.