City continuing discussion to close Natatorium, repair fire stations; additional budget work session set for July 11

Closure of the Natatorium remains on the table in the proposed Great Falls budget.

City Commissioners and city staff further discussed the proposed $117.9 budget for the fiscal year that began July 1.

No members of the public attended the work session. Commissioners added another special work session on at 2 p.m. July 11 for another public comment opportunity and more discussion among commissioners.

City Manager Greg Doyon presented his budget proposal during a three-hour special work session last week and reviewed the proposal Tuesday night.

[READ: All documents related to the proposed FY19 budget]

The budget includes a recommended annual property tax increase of $6.14 on a property with a $100,000 market value. Of that proposed increase, 0.82 percent is for the inflationary factor and 1.93 for the permissive medical levy.

The proposed budget also includes recommendations for increases to utility rates and some other special assessment districts.

The budget hearing is scheduled for July 17 during the regular commission meeting along with hearings on the intent to raise property taxes and setting the other assessments.

Proposed city budget would close Natatorium, potentially a golf course

Doyon has proposed closing the Natatorium since the building was constructed in 1966 and has reached the end of its useful life.

Other city pools are also in need of repair, including the money-making Electric City Water Park.

Doyon said the city can’t afford to fix both with the available reserves in city funds.

Proposed pool fee increases small; aquatics program facing larger budgetary challenges

This isn’t the first time city staff has recommended closure of the Natatorium. In 2015, the Park and Recreation director had recommended closure and Doyon said when he arrived in 2008, staff told him they’d attempted to close the facility about 10 years prior.

Commissioner Owen Robinson asked if the staff had considered metal siding as an option to repair the brick facade that fell off the side of the Natatorium in January. Staff had discussed that option for the last six months and that was included in stories on The Electric during that time. Steve Herrig, Park and Rec director, said that the estimate for that option was $540,000, excluding other needed repairs at the facility.

City looking at costs, options to repair Natatorium, Civic Center, wave rider

Robinson said he was concerned about swimming options for those with health issues if the Natatorium closed, but “I’m certainly not going to vote against the budget,” because of it.

Doyon said there will be people affected by the closure, but he and Herrig said staff are looking into alternatives and partnerships with other pools in the community.

Of alternatives, Herrig said, “if there’s one out there, we’ll find it.”

Commissioner Mary Moe said culture, arts and recreation aren’t frills in the city budget, but concurred that continuing to fund the Natatorium is throwing good money after bad.

She told staff that she wants a Plan B for those who use the Natatorium for health reasons and low-income members of the community.

Mayor Bob Kelly said other cities are also closing pools and “there comes a point in time that you have to make a hard decision.”

Moe asked if the fire stations could cobble along and the city could build a new station versus repairing the collapsed sewer lines under two stations that were discovered this year.

Doyon said the “reality is we’re not in a financial position” to build new stations yet.

Great Falls Fire Rescue Chief Steve Hester said they were doing renovations in the bathrooms at Station 2 when the floor collapsed and they found a sinkhole.

At Station 4, the floor in the bathroom heaved and “we’re worried about collapsing,” Hester told commissioners.

“We’re at a point now where we’ve got to do something,” Hester said.