After several years of discussion and debate, the Jefferson City Council is poised to perhaps soon hold a vote to build an aquatics facility in the town.
The city recently opened bids for the project with the low bid being $12.2 million from Cooper & Company General Contractors from Cumming. Along with building out parking and some other incidentals, the total project is expected to be around $13 million.
On May 15, the council held a special called meeting to discuss the proposed project. That meeting, which lasted over two hours, delved into the weeds of how the project would look and how it would be financed. In addition, the council heard from several citizens about the plan, both supporters and those opposed.
The proposed aquatics center — technically called natatorium — would be an indoor facility with two pools. It would be designed both for competition swimming, including club and school teams, and also for general public use.
Discussions about such a facility began several years ago under then-Mayor Steve Quinn who adopted the idea as a main focus during his time in office. After Quinn's departure, new council member Cody Cain took up the idea and has been assembling the details to bring the proposal to a council vote.
As proposed, the facility would be located at the corner of Old Pendergrass Rd. and Old Swimming Pool Rd. near the city’s existing recreation center.
The city has an outdoor pool facility that was built in the 1960s by Jefferson Mills and later transferred to the city. That facility is used in the summer months for area day camps and is also open to the general public on a limited schedule.
But that pool isn’t suitable for swim team use, most of which hold year-around competitions and practices and require indoor pool facilities. Currently, local school and club swim teams travel to Athens, Gainesville or Gwinnett County to practice.
The increasing demand related to competition swimming initially drove the issue to the foreground, but supporters note that it would also be used by the general public for recreation and exercise needs for many senior citizens.
Council member Cain outlined on May 15 the details of how the pool would be designed for multiple purposes, including having extra lanes and differing depths to appeal to different kinds of uses. He also said the facility would be air conditioned/heated to provide a comfortable situation for both swimmers and those watching swim meet competitions.
As proposed, the project would be funded via bonds which would be paid back using SPLOST 7 funds and impact fees.
In November, voters approved SPLOST 7, which are funds that can only be used to pay for capital projects or debt for capital projects.
In the City of Jefferson, 31.7% of its share of the county’s SPLOST is designated to go toward recreation needs in the city (each city and the county individually determine how they want to use their share of SPLOST proceeds.) By law, the funds generated by that 31.7% can't be used for other purposes outside of recreation in the city.
Those SPLOST dollars would be used to pay the bond debt service over a 20-year period. In addition, for the first two or three years, impact fee funds would also likely be used to get the facility up and going.
While city leaders said they expect SPLOST funds to continue growing given the large amount of growth in the county, to pay over the entire 20 years would require that voters renew the SPLOST for two more six-year terms to fully pay off the debt.
In addition to discussing the initial construction expense, the council also looked at the potential ongoing operations expenses that would be necessary to operate the facility.
Cain outlined a projected yearly expense of $875,800, but noted that it was difficult to get exact numbers given the number of variables involved with an entirely new facility.
The city also outlined projected income for the facility, the largest of which would come from club swimmers who would collectively pay around $300,000 per year to use the facility. School swim team use would bring in another $120,000 and public memberships were estimated to bring in around $129,000. Contributions, swim meets, concessions and other items would also be revenue sources.
If direct revenues from the pool’s programs weren’t enough to cover all the operating expenses, the difference would be made up from the city’s general fund, officials noted. City officials said that the town might have to use around $300,000 from reserves to get the program up and running.
Mayor Jon Howell said the issue is a “monumental decision” for the council and noted that due to the uproar over property reassessments, the “timing isn’t perfect” to be discussing such a major project.
But Howell said the proposed aquatic center wouldn’t directly impact city property taxes given that it would be financed via SPLOST funds.
“We’ve identified a need that has not been met to date and that need is that we don’t have indoor facilities for our swim team, we don’t have indoor swim facilities for our senior community, we don’t have indoor swim facilities for those who may not know how to swim and we don’t have recreational swim facilities for people to swim outside of the warm months of the year, so this conversation is around what does that look like, what is the quality of life benefit,” he said. “It is an opportunity cost analysis.”
During the public comments, one man angrily called the idea “a horrible mistake,” and complained about the city’s lack of soccer fields.
Others complained about the recent property reassessments and said they didn’t want their taxes to go up and one man suggested the idea be put on a referendum.
But several people also spoke in support of the project. One woman said businesses have to take risks and that “we have to be open to risks.”
Another woman who supported the aquatic facility said that it always “feels like the ‘nays’ are the loudest dog barking.”
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