North Bend returns pool money | Community
Some North Bend residents are getting an unexpected surprise in the mail this week — a city check.
City Administrator David Milliron said North Bend started sending checks to people who prepaid for pool use in 2020 because the pool was forced to close due to COVID-19.
Milliron said many people paid annual passes or paid in advance for special classes and similar things. When the pool was forced to close, the city had the money and kept it due to uncertainty about when the city pool might reopen.
“We withheld that money,” Milliron said. “I met the staff and said, let’s focus on getting the money out, because we’re not a savings and loan.”
Milliron said returning the money was no easy task. He explained that the city pool didn’t use a computer system to track revenue, so city staff had to do an audit by going through documents piece by piece to determine who had money owed. The majority of the work was completed early in the new year, and the city sent out checks totaling over $32,000.
“People have been getting checks all week,” Milliron said. “We’re not done yet. We always do a manual audit. It’s a process, but we moved as fast as we could and sent over $30,000.
Milliron said returning the money was something the city was committed to doing, even if it took a lot of work to figure it out.
“It’s part of openness and transparency,” he said. “The swimming pool was closed and we were withholding the money. It wasn’t ours, it was theirs.
Milliron said more checks will be sent as soon as staff can determine who to send them to and how much. He explained that some accounts were difficult to decipher because in some cases one person might have purchased a pass for another. In this case, the city wants to return the money to the person who made the actual purchase.
Milliron said the future of the North Bend pool is still up in the air. It will remain closed as long as the COVID threat continues, but what will happen after that is still uncertain.
Late last year, Milliron met with city council and explained that the pool was losing a lot of money each year, often between $200,000 and $300,000. He told the board he needed to consider whether operating the pool at a loss was still an option or if there was a way to generate additional revenue. He also told the council that the pool needed major infrastructure upgrades before it could reopen. Milliron told the board some things they might consider, including bonds or a tax levy to pay for improvements and make up for losses.
“I kept the board informed,” he said. “They know we’re working on a grant. If North Bend were a little poorer, we would qualify for federal and state grants. But we are not.
In fact, Milliron said the city found no outside funding to help with the pool. He explained that grants are available for many things, but he hasn’t found any to help run a pool. There are grants for low-income communities, but North Bend doesn’t come close to qualifying for these.
After hearing from the city administrator last year, Mayor Jessica Engelke said council would hold a retreat early this year to discuss the pool and other key issues.
This retreat is scheduled for January 19 at the community center. During the meeting, the council will meet with all of the city’s department heads and come up with a list of 12-15 priorities for the city to focus on for the next two years.
“You can only have 12 to 15 best goals,” Milliron explained. “If you have more than that, it’s hard to do in two years. The city still has to meet the basic needs of the citizens.
Once council has set goals, city staff will create a plan on how to implement council’s goals. This will then come back to the board for formal approval.
The challenge, with the pool or any other goal, is how to fund it, Milliron said.
“I know we don’t have enough money, so I have to be very, very creative with the staff,” he said. “When I say creative, I know the police department is working on grants for new patrol cars. We must be able to accomplish the initiatives without additional debt.
He said one option was to borrow money to fund current goals with a plan to pay them back over 20 or 30 years. He explained that if the city wanted to pave all of its roads, it would cost $14 million. Since North Bend does not have this money, she could borrow the money and slowly pay it back. Milliron said a properly constructed and paved road would last 50 years, long after the loan was paid off.
“You split the cost between generations so that no generation pays,” he said. “That’s the path I’m taking.”
The final decision, he said, would rest with the council.