Our View: City should count pennies

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The Steamboat Springs City Council must be careful not to send the wrong message to the city's voters as it prioritizes capital improvement projects.

At Tuesday's council meeting, the council began looking at projects the city faces in the coming year. The top two projects cited were building a new clubhouse for Haymaker Golf Course and replacing the bubble at the Steamboat Springs Tennis Center. Together, those projects will cost almost $6 million.

The capital improvement process has just begun, and the council has made no commitment to complete either project. But in the coming months, as the council starts making its decisions, we would advise fiscal prudence -- in terms of how much they cost and how they are funded -- on the tennis center and clubhouse.

It is no secret that the city will try to pursue a tax as early as next year. Since 2002, the city has twice sought a property tax to fund capital projects, and voters rejected both proposals. The city has since created a Tax Policy Advisory Board to develop a new plan that could come before voters in the fall of 2005.

If the council over-commits financial resources to the Tennis Center and clubhouse, it might as well kiss any hopes of a new tax goodbye.

We have said it before -- Steamboat Springs' indoor tennis facility is a significant community asset, comparable to Howelsen Ice Arena. When the bubble was built in 1991 for roughly $300,000, it was a state-of-the-art facility. But Steamboat's climate -- heavy snowfall, blistering sun and wide-ranging temperatures -- has taken its toll. No one is sure how much longer the facility will last -- perhaps it won't make it through the winter.

The Steamboat Springs Tennis Association wants to replace the bubble with a metal building that has retractable canvas walls that can be raised in summer and lowered in winter. Such a building would have triple the lifespan as the bubble. It is estimated to cost $1.98 million. To its credit, the Tennis Association has committed to funding $330,000 of the project.

Similarly, the current clubhouse of Haymaker is inadequate. The facility is small, unsightly and inadequate for the course. Haymaker is one of the best public courses in the state, and its presence along the all-important corridor into the city calls for a quality clubhouse that welcomes arriving guests.

But does the city really need to spend $4 million on such a clubhouse as is proposed? The course only cost $5 million to build.

Granted, the clubhouse funds would not come from the city's operating budget. Rather, the 1 percent accommodations tax, which can be used for above-ground tourist amenities, would continue to be committed to the golf course, as it has been since the course was built in the mid-1990s.

At its current price, a new clubhouse would tie up the accommodations tax past 2013. If the clubhouse cost less, perhaps some of those funds could be used elsewhere, including to help fund a replacement for the tennis bubble.

In its capital improvement draft plan, the city has a number of other projects, including $540,000 in street pavement, $913,000 for new buses, $117,00 for a new ambulance, $275,000 for renovating the public safety building and $250,000 for new ball fields to accommodate Triple Crown. On the surface, all seem to be more essential projects than the Tennis Center or clubhouse.

The city has enjoyed a better than expected year financially. Sales-tax revenues are ahead of what was budgeted. Perhaps the city has enough funds to tackle everything on its wish list.

But if that proves to be the case, the city is going to have a tough time trying to sell voters on a tax next fall, especially one to replenish its capital improvement fund.

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