“All of this has kind of spearheaded a new assessment of our total recreation program,” said Mayor Patrick Taylor. “We had been spending a lot of money these last few years and had a lot to spend in the future on our existing capital facilities.”
Highlands was in the midst of building a new outdoor swimming pool, replacing a 30-year-old facility that leaked water profusely, when the Williams made their donation. Highlands had looked into pricing for a retractable roof when making their building plans, because an all-season pool had been a recurring request from town residents. In 2011, a survey the town solicited from an independent firm returned “enclosed pool” as respondents’ number one desire for their town.
“The cost of doing that seemed to be prohibitive, but with this donation it takes those construction costs out,” Taylor said, “and the funding year to year becomes more accessible for us.”
It’s still not cheap. Utilities and staff to operate the pool year-round will cost about $100,000, a large chunk in proportion to a typical recreation budget of $750,000 to $800,000. Macon County pays for $500,000 of that because more than half of the people who use the recreation department facilities live in the county, not the town. So, even with construction paid for, operating the pool would require an increase of roughly 33 percent in the town’s share of recreation funding.
That money could come from a few different places — the schools paying a fee to have a swim team use the facility, perhaps, or the hospital using the pool for therapy — but a property tax increase emerged as the most viable option.
“If the majority of the people want the pool and are willing to support it with a property tax increase, that would not only support it but would pay for other facilities upgrades, so be it,” said John Dotson, town board member. “But if the people don’t want a property tax increase and are not willing to support the pool, I’m OK with that too.”
The town board will continue to discuss the possibility — and hear from the public — as it formulates a budget for the 2014-15 fiscal year. In its current form, the plan would be to earmark the extra half cent for recreation, using the funds for facilities upgrades, upkeep and increased programming. The half cent would increase the town property tax to 13.5 cents, which is in addition to the 28 cents per $100 of valuation county residents pay.
Taylor believes that’s a good route to go. In such a seasonal town as Highlands, a strong recreation program is key to attracting more people to live there year-round and to keep those who already do. Fewer than 1,000 people live in the city limits of Highlands year-round, but that population multiplies in the summertime.
“I think if we have really good recreation programs, that will make people want to stay here,” Taylor said.
Program plans will have to wait, though, until after the facilities upgrades are taken care of, said Recreation Director Lester Norris.
“Till we get these facilities corrected, there’s not a lot that’s going to happen,” Norris said.
The newly constructed pool, sans cover, will open for the first time in June. The retractable roof would then go in over the winter, after the pool has closed for the season.
The civic center will also get a makeover during the upcoming fiscal year, with the donation funding a new floor and bleachers, while the town will foot the bill for some additional upgrades. Right now, the center includes a stage area that’s virtually never used, so the plan is to close it in and convert it to a dance room, complete with showers and dressing rooms. That upgrade would also support the center’s dual function as a Red Cross relief shelter.
“We’ve got restrooms out in the hallway, but we have no showers,” Norris said. “With this stage renovation, we’ll have the showers that will accommodate them and be handicapped-accessible.”
Other renovations, like new bathrooms on the main level and an exit ramp for visitors with disabilities, would also be part of the plan.
But capital improvements and the increased upkeep costs that accompany expansion cost money.
“I certainly hate to see a tax increase, but there seems to be enough public support for this across the board,” Dotson said. “People would be willing to have this and more in the recreation department.”