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UT Voters Reject Fitness Center Bonds

Voters in Sarasota Springs, UT turned down a $70M bond measure that would have financed the construction of a new fitness center. The preliminary design for the facility featured indoor courts for various sports, two pools, exercise equipment, a running track, fitness rooms, multipurpose rooms and outdoor natural hot spring soaking pools.

The rejection was substantial: the measure failed by a margin of more than 2:1. It appears residents didn’t want to saddle themselves with decades worth of debt. At least those voters got to weigh in on the issue. The Washtenaw Community College Board of Trustees did not extend the courtesy of allowing Washtenaw County voters to accept or refuse the bill for WCC’s Health and Fitness Center.

It’s hard to say what the voters would have done in this case. You see, the voters have already approved tax support for a recreational facility in Washtenaw County. Of course, the WCC administration will argue that the Health and Fitness Center at WCC is “different.”

Debt is debt, and no marketing gimmick in the world makes it anything other than debt. As taxpayers, we’re paying for the Meri Lou Murray Recreational facility, and we’re also paying for a shadow recreation facility at WCC. In the case of the WCC facility, the Board of Trustees agreed to divert funds that the taxpayers approved for education to fund the Health and Fitness Center instead.

The diversion is not harmless. The Trustees did not insist on accountability for the Health and Fitness Center, which the WCC Administration at the time assured the Trustees (and the community) would pay for itself.

Fitness Center debt weighs down the rest of the institution

The Trustees did not build a financial firewall into the funding agreement separate College’s funds from those of the Health and Fitness Center. The Health and Fitness Center, which is supposed to sustain itself, does not generate the revenue required to pay off its own bond debts, pay for its maintenance and upkeep, and pay for its daily operations. As a result, the College used federal COVID-19 funds to cover a massive $4.5M operating loss in 2021. According to the College, the Health and Fitness Center will generate no income in the current fiscal year, either.

Had the federal government NOT provided COVID-19 relief funds in 2021-22, that $4.5M would have come out of WCC’s General Fund. As is, the project prevented WCC from using that $4.5M for more mission-centric purposes.

To my knowledge, no one in the community asked for a second taxpayer-funded, privately operated, members-only recreation facility. Washtenaw County taxpayers certainly didn’t agree to fund it.

The ongoing maintenance for the building is enormous, and the building has generated high maintenance expenses related to low-quality construction exacerbated by significant over-use, as well as structural problems.

Failure to allow the voters of Washtenaw County to decide whether the Health and Fitness Center should have been constructed is simple arrogance on the part of the Washtenaw Community College Board of Trustees. The Trustees have forgotten both their purpose and who they are accountable to.

Unless the taxpayers remind the Trustees of why they’re in the office they hold and what the taxpayers expect of them, we can be sure that our tax dollars will continue to fund ridiculously irrelevant construction projects on campus.

Photo Credit: WayTru, via Flickr