The Watkins City Council last week in a 3-2 vote approved $60,000 in funding to help build a new grandstand at the Clipper Field.
The grandstand is required for the park to co-host the 2015 state amateur baseball tournament.
Mayor Dennis Loch was one of those voting against the measure.
“I voted against it in principal,” said Loch. His concern was that because the baseball association is a non-profit entity, under state law the city cannot provide money for the project without that money someday being paid back to the city.
“I don’t believe we should be spending taxpayer money for this entity unless it is paid back,” Loch said in an interview after the meeting. “I’m against it in principal unless we get that money back. That’s the only legal way we do it.”
A group of about 50 people attended the meeting, most of them speaking in favor of the project.
Mike Lease spoke on behalf of the baseball association at the meeting and afterward said he was “pleasantly surprised by the turnout” and the positive comments made toward the project. Many of those who spoke at the meeting thought the improvements to the ballpark would be a positive for the community
“This is the first hurdle,” Lease said. “There’s a whole lot of work that needs to be done. We will need hundreds of volunteers.
Lease hopes that footings for the grandstand can be dug and poured in the next couple of weeks.
The grandstand is needed because the board that governs the state tournament requires seating for 700 fans with at least 300 of those seats needing to be
Mayor Loch said that the council now would have to assess the city budget. “It’s been set,” he said, adding that state law requires that the city keep 50 percent of its general reserve on hand in case “some unexpected expenditure comes up. If we drop below that for two years our levy would go up.”
Loch said he is concerned that the taxes in Watkins are already too high.
“Every single survey we’ve done came back saying taxes are too high,” Loch said.
Councilmember Jerry Hesse, the other dissenting voter, stated that the city has other needs for the reserve funds, including two road projects and the water tower, which needs about $50,000 in repairs. He said the aging water tower might need replacement in a couple of years as well.
“I’m not against baseball,” Hesse said. “I’m not against the state tournament. It’s just how they went about it.”
Hesse said the existing park should not have been torn apart before funding to replace it was raised.
Councilmember Sue Unterberger, who was undecided on which way she would vote going into the meeting, said she ended up voting for approving the funding because the majority in attendance were in favor of the project.
“There were very few people who expressed opinions against it,” Unterberger said of those who spoke at the meeting and even prior to and afterwards.
“Personally, no one has reached out to me who are against it,” she said.
Unterberger said she is concerned about not raising taxes and that this year’s budget is already set. However, she is hoping that the council can find room in its reserves and in other areas to help cover the expenditure.
Unterberger and Councilmember Melody Gertken both mentioned that the city did not spend as much money this year on snow removal as was budgeted. and they are hoping that funds from there can be used to pay for the grandstand work as well as finding other areas where city costs and can be cut.
During last week’s meeting, Councilmember Scott Piccerillo said that if the city could approve expenditures for the city’s swimming pool and skating rink it should be able to fund the ballpark improvements. “It’s for the whole town,” Piccerillo said at the meeting.
The Watkins Lions Club received a loan from the city for $60,599 dollars to build the skating rink. The Lions are paying that money back at a rate of $500 a month, but Loch said that the city owns that facility and it does not own the ballpark. That may have to change, he said.
Both the city auditor and attorney have made it clear that the city cannot by state law give money directly to the non-profit baseball association. Rather, the city would need to pay vendor doing the grandstand work and, in effect, would then own that part of the facility.
Now that the vote to approve the money is complete, mayor Loch says the next step is to figure out how best the project can move forward. He said a joint powers agreement that will be hammered out on April 3 will be the next crucial step. At that meeting, the council will meet with the Watkins Baseball Association as well as the city attorney and auditor.
There are 479 taxpaying entities in the city, 371 of those are residences and the others businesses. If the $60,000 is divided equally among all of them that would calculate out to $125 each, if the full amount were to be collected in taxes.
Artist’s rendering of the proposed grandstand at the Watkins ball park, in preparation for the 2015 state amateur baseball tournament. The park also is used by Legion ball, high school teams, and Babe Ruth.