September 8, 2009 in Opinion

Editorial: Racetrack purchase could burn taxpayers

 

Spokane County commissioners – Todd Mielke and Mark Richard made the deciding votes – took a big risk in purchasing the Spokane Raceway Park and surrounding acreage. But if their gamble fails, it will be taxpayers who are on the hook.

The contract for track management is in jeopardy, because Austin Motorsports Management LLC hasn’t paid four contractors for work worth more than $1 million. About $2 million in work has been done to get the West Plains track into racing shape. When the issue of nonpayment surfaced in July, track operator Bucky Austin said it was a misunderstanding, with administrative snags holding up the payments. Don’t worry, he said, the track was on course.

But more than two months have passed, and the bills are still unpaid. This is bad news for Spokane County, because the facility was purchased with the idea that it would pay for itself. It’s also bad because if Austin doesn’t pay, then the contractors are likely to sue the county for negligent oversight.

Upon purchase of the track and surrounding acreage, commissioners noted what a bargain it was, but $4.3 million is still a lot of money for a cash-strapped county. The plan was to tap proceeds from the races to cover the purchase, but some events have been canceled or postponed because of the financial uncertainties.

Northwest Pro4 Alliance’s July 18 appearance was among those canceled. “We didn’t want to go race and have them say they didn’t have the money to pay us,” said Bob Coply, of Boise, the alliance’s president.

Until the financial cloud is lifted, it will be difficult for the track to make enough money to pay the county and its contractors. Commissioners are losing patience, giving Austin 60 days to settle the bills or lose the contract. At that point the racing season will be over, and county officials will know whether Austin is up to the task.

If not, they need to act fast to hire another track manager, because the county cannot afford for this venture to fail. It’s already looking at an expensive new jail; then there’s the specter of those lawsuits to cover $1 million in bills.

Austin offers several excuses for why he’s in a bind. He opted for an ambitious start on upgrades, but he didn’t get clearance for some of that work. He says the credit crunch thwarted a loan. He blamed a construction manager for failing to obtain the bond required by the contract, but the responsibility is his. Now that the work is done, the bond cannot be purchased.

Mielke and Richard aggressively pursued the purchase of the facility. They now need the same zeal to ensure that it won’t become a money pit for taxpayers.

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