In a compromise deal after months of heated public debate, the Imperial Beach City Council on April 16 unanimously approved resolutions that turned over management of the sports park to two private organizations. The final vote was greeted with cheers, though some expressed reservations about the vagueness of the agreement.
The decision gives management of half of the park to the Boys & Girls Club and the other half to the Little League and Imperial Beach Girl's Softball, referred to collectively by the council as "the Leagues." The Leagues will manage the ball fields and other athletic fields, while the Boys & Girls Club will run the recreation center, the children’s playground, and the skate park.
Councilmember Edward Spriggs, while praising the result, expressed concern about the lack of information on the decision's fiscal impact. "We seem to have succeeded in getting the city and the community on the same page…. I’d like to thank everybody who participated and for having faith that if they were involved in something, good could come out of it."
Spriggs's concern involved the fiscal impact of the agreement, which he said was "a little vague."
"I'm not happy with one aspect of the staff report that says it is difficult to know [the] fiscal impact of this," Spriggs said. "In turning over public property, we ought to know a little more about the cost associated with that."
City manager Andy Hall acknowledged that the fiscal-impact projection was somewhat unknown. "The good news is that any costs associated with implementing this facility will not affect the general fund and its budget; but by the same token, it's fair criticism that there's still some unknowns in these agreements."
In the new contract, the city will provide $50,000 per year to offset power and water costs, with any remainder going to general park improvement. The city will also provide $10,000 for scholarships for lower-income youth and residents.
Candy Unger, the leader of the citizens’ group that has been active on the sports-park issue, went on record to praise the current rec-center employees.
"Never once did they complain about the possibility of losing their jobs," Unger said. "It was first and foremost always about the kids."
Unger noted that program coordinator Jim Coates is set to retire but that the remaining two workers who would be eligible for continuing employment, recreation leader Fe Fernandez and recreation aide Shawn Kelley, "are two of the most kind-hearted, dedicated and loyal employees this city has ever had...these fine people are true assets to the community as well as to the sports park."
Unger noted that though the new contracts state that the Boys & Girls Club should give hiring priority to the current employees of the sports park, "also the city should do everything in their power to find alternative positions for them within the city."
One of the most contentious issues of the sports-park privatization has been the prospect of fees to use the currently free skate park. Unger clarified in a Facebook post that "As a member of the sports park task force and also a representative on behalf of the community for the sports park collaboration, I want to tell you that there will be NO FEES for the skatepark."
Whether other fees will increase is unclear. According to sources close to the management of the Boys & Girls Club, no child is turned away for lack of money; the issue is usually handled informally without any paperwork and the current rec center mostly ignores the fee requirements listed on the Imperial Beach city website.
Councilmember Spriggs addressed this gray area of whether any new fees could hurt the low-income community, calling for "some sort of balance between the Boys and Girls Club's necessary fees for them to be able to do this, and not excluding low-income people in the process."
"This is something we need to monitor and keep an eye on,” Spriggs said. “There's not a lot of definition of how this works in the agreement. Maybe that's fine because this is kind of an experiment."