March 27, 2010 in City

Vote on Y’s future expected to be close

After tour, executive session, ‘it’s just time’ for decision, Shogan says
By The Spokesman-Review
 
Dan Pelle photo

Internal Auditor Rick Romero, left, and Council President Joe Shogan watch the Spokane River during a YMCA tour Friday.
(Full-size photo)

Map of this story's location

A creature lurking in the YMCA’s basement has caused a renewed examination of the Y by city officials days before they could make a final decision on the building’s fate.

This week Mayor Mary Verner and several City Council members toured the vacant Y, where a beaver has taken up residence along a stream that flows through a portion of the Y’s dirt basement.

“I’m not sure if that’s a reason to tear it down or leave it up,” said Councilwoman Amber Waldref. She said her tour didn’t affect how she feels: “I still think that ultimately the building’s got to come out.”

It’s unclear how the beaver tours might affect the Y debate. (Apparently Verner is the only elected official who saw the beaver.) To some, the creature is proof that demolishing the Y could allow the site to function as a natural area. To others, filling in the basement, which city officials estimate is 35 feet below the ground, is one more obstacle to tearing it down.

After more than a year of debate, the council is scheduled to decide Monday if it will accept Spokane County’s offer to use Conservation Futures property taxes to pay off its $4.3 million debt on the building.

The beaver tours came the same week that the council discussed the topic privately in a meeting that may have conflicted with state law.

On Thursday, Shogan said the council met in a private “executive session” to discuss a “real estate” matter. On Friday, city officials confirmed that they discussed the YMCA.

“It was a topic and it was justified under the real estate rules,” Shogan said Friday.

State law says a city council can only use real estate as a reason to meet behind closed doors if public knowledge about a real estate issue “would cause a likelihood of increased price.”

The city already owns the property, and although the city has received bids from developers to buy or lease the site, those offers were released to the public a few weeks ago.

Since the city owns the Y and the bids have been made public, using real estate to justify closure of the meeting may be questionable, said Greg Overstreet, the former open government ombudsman for the state attorney general’s office.

“You can’t close a meeting just because real estate is involved,” Overstreet said. “There are several important requirements other than just the topic being real estate.”

But City Attorney Howard Delaney said the council discussed issues brought to light after proposals from developers Mark Pinch and Ron Wells were submitted late last month. Delaney added that those issues “may affect price.”

Delaney said he would not elaborate if his statement meant that the City Council is again considering private development on the site.

Earlier this month, city leaders largely dismissed Wells’ and Pinch’s plans for private development involving the Y, arguing that the concepts were too risky.

Delaney added the City Council also had a right to meet privately because of threatened lawsuits. City leaders have talked openly in other meetings about a threat to sue the city over Conservation Futures from former City Councilman Steve Eugster. Delaney said there is other potential litigation dealing with the issue, but he declined to say who has made the threat.

The Spokane Park Board put down $1 million to buy the YMCA in 2006 to prevent the land from being sold to a developer who proposed building condos there. Park leaders won support from the county park board in 2008 to use Conservation Futures funds to pay off the remaining $4.3 million on the building, but the City Council has blocked that effort and decided instead to borrow the needed money from a trash service reserve fund, which must be repaid with interest.

Supporters of using Conservation Futures argue that the YMCA building is an eyesore that detracts from the most important natural landmark in the region. They argue that using the county money for the Y would showcase the Conservation Futures program without raising taxes and in a location that would be easily accessed and enjoyed by taxpayers who don’t often visit other property bought by the fund.

Opponents say that Conservation Futures should be used to buy only undeveloped land and that the cost of the Y property, which is smaller than an acre, could buy more than 1,000 acres in a more pristine condition. Some have argued that Riverfront Park has too much open space and that adding more vegetation to the park could spark crime in the city’s core. Spokane Chief Financial Officer Gavin Cooley said at a meeting earlier this month that if Conservation Futures money is refused, possible options include raising hotel taxes, asking voters for higher property taxes or selling park property north of Riverfront Park that voters agreed to buy in 1999.

City officials say they expect a close vote at Monday’s meeting.

“The council’s well informed,” Shogan said shortly after taking an abbreviated tour of the Y basement on Friday. “It’s just time to vote.”


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