Merriam steering committee to make final recommendations on recreational facilities in mid-December

The original community center building dates to 1911 and was the first school in Merriam.
The original community center building dates to 1911 and was the first school in Merriam.
After more than a year of study, Merriam expects to consider recommendations for the future of its recreational facilities next month with a final decision in early January.

The Merriam City Council is scheduled to receive a draft master plan from its Recreational Facilities Steering Committee Dec. 12, and will seek public comment Dec. 13. A vote on a final master plan is scheduled for Jan. 9, 2017.

The building housing the Irene B. French Community Center at 5701 Merriam Dr. is a former school dating to 1911 with additions built in 1938, 1951 and 1989. The Merriam Aquatic Center located at Vavra Park is over 30 years old.

“We have some facilities that are tired and coming to the end of their useful life,” City Administrator Chris Engel, told the Council Monday. “Repairs would be costly because of their age. Parts of the community center are over 100 years old…we need a plan to move forward.”

It would cost an estimated $3 million to repair the pool, and $6 million to renovate the community center to current standards, said Anna Slocum, director of parks & recreation. To expand the community center and add new amenities would cost up to $12 million.

If Merriam decides to build new recreational facilities, it would cost about $25 million, a joint meeting of the Recreational Facilities Steering Committee and the city governing body estimated earlier this month, according to the city website.

The new facilities would be located on the north end of Vavra Park with the community center positioned on the east and aquatic center on the west to maximize potential parking. The plan would include both indoor and outdoor aquatics.

Operational costs were estimated to be in the $1.3–$1.5 million range, with approximately 25 percent covered by taxes and 75 percent recovered in user fees. Currently, about 20 percent of operational cost of the community center is covered by user fees and 50 percent of the aquatic center operations.

Some Merriam residents want the city to schedule a vote before proceeding with any new construction.

“Will you place this proposed ordinance on the agenda for next council meeting on November 28, 2016?” asked Sam Matier.

“Shall it be unlawful for the Merriam City Council to issue bonds in excess of $5 million without a public vote of Merriam electors?”

Mayor Ken Sissam said the city has to have a final, more detailed plan and price estimate before going to voters. He pointed to the recent election to increase the sales tax to build a new Johnson County Courthouse, observing that a firm plan had been prepared before the question was placed on the ballot.

“It’s not a matter of whether we’re going to have a public vote,” Sissam said. “I don’t think we have a choice and I’d like to have a vote.”

Matier remains skeptical.

“When I hear the mayor say that the law probably allows the public to vote and he has the city attorney sitting there that could make the answer more reliable, I draw a conclusion that the public will not get to vote,” he said.

A survey of 522 Merriam residents conducted recently by the ETC Institute found that when asked if they agreed the city needs a new community recreation center, 56 percent of the respondents agreed, 34 percent were neutral and 11 percent disagreed.

As for how to pay for it, 25 percent supported a sales tax increase, 6 percent a property tax increase, 24 percent a blend of both taxes and 21 percent wanted no tax increase. A large majority, 74 percent, said the operations should be covered by user fees.

A blog on the city website is being used to communicate with citizens about the project.