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Standing room only at meeting

by Linda Hiller

After a grass roots plea for neighborhood residents to attend last week’s meeting of the Indian Hills General Improvement District Board of Trustees, it was standing-room-only, as more than 40 people attended, breaking the regular attendance of “around three people,” board members said.

At issue was a plan to build an office in the Sunridge area, something 71 percent of previously surveyed residents had said they did not want if it meant abandoning the district’s initial plan for a community center/office complex at James Lee Park.

Residents Thursday said the survey results spoke for what people of the neighborhood and general improvement district wanted, and the fact that board members at the last meeting had voted 3-2 to table the center and instead concentrate on an offer from Sunridge developer Bill Wellman to participate in an office complex project across Highway 395, was, in effect, a rejection of their vote.

“We already voted on it and voiced our opinion and we should go with it,” said resident Kary Grabow. “The people spoke and I think we should go with it,”

– Two years and some cash. A community center with office space has been in the planning stage for more than two years. Already invested was $56,000, used for architects, engineers and more. Cost estimates for the 10,346-square-foot building near James Lee Park had totaled more than $1.4 million. District leaders had sought backing for a community development block grant for $395,000 from the county commission, but that request was withdrawn after the Indian Hills board voted to table the center and instead concentrate on Wellman’s offer.

Board members Steve Weaver and Ron Kruse had voted in favor of the community center, while Joanne Riekenberg, Dick Fairfax and Renee Haskell voted against.

Out of 1,137 surveys, 198, or 17.4 percent, were returned. Haskell and Riekenberg both stated they felt the 17 percent return was not a valid sampling of Indian Hills residents.

“It just wasn’t enough to warrant spending $1.4 million,” Riekenberg said.

Fairfax said the cost of the center was not necessarily the main reason for his no vote, but he was concerned that staffing and salaries would cost more than anyone anticipated.

“We need an office really bad,” he said, pointing out that the current space was insufficient to accommodate the three dozen-plus residents who attended that meeting.

– November ballot. Fairfax suggested the question be put on the November ballot, with those results binding. After some heated discussion, the boardvoted to have the question of the community center and the Sunridge office building put on the ballot.

Haskell said she thought that if the residents of Douglas County would be able to use the north county facility, they should share in the cost. For that reason, she voted against putting it on the ballot with just a regional, instead of a county-wide, vote.

Residents questioned why the board was even discussing putting the question on the ballot, when a vote had already been taken.

“If, as you say, we don’t have the money to do it anyway, why put it on the ballot,” asked resident George Bishop.

“Why did you go forward, spending the money with the intention of building, and then you come up and vote against it?” asked resident Betty Sellway. “Now the money is down the drain. Why should we pay for another vote on the ballot? We voted.”

Haskell said board members did not initially anticipate the high cost for a community center/office complex.

“We were dumfounded,” she said of learning the experts’ reports and cost estimates.

“I think putting it on the ballot is inappropriate,” said resident Bert Lackenbauer. “You don’t have all your ducks in a row … why put it on the ballot? It doesn’t make sense.”

Resident Rhonda Pascor pointed out inconsistencies in the board’s plans in the past.

“Why enter into contracts (with engineers), if you have second thoughts and no money?” she asked.

“At the time, we didn’t know what the costs would be,” Riekenberg said.

– Parks support letter. Pascor read a 1998 letter of support from Douglas County Parks and Recreation director Scott Morgan, which indicated that his department would support and possibly help staff a community center in Indian Hills.

“We need his support right now,” Haskell said. “Why don’t we get our general manager (Jim Bentley) to call Scott and see if he’s still interested?”

“I don’t see any reason to spend more money (on a ballot question),” said Mike Bournazian, chief of the Jacks Valley Volunteer Fire Department. “The majority has spoken. You put this out, you got 198 responses, you asked for our input. We’re here to ask you for your support for what you asked us to vote on.”

Weaver said he thought a ballot vote would prove the survey results.

“It’s highly likely that we can get county support next year,” he said. “I’m willing to give the county the opportunity to vote.”

Skeptical residents wondered if a ballot vote with the same nod toward a center in James Lee Park would again be ignored by the five-member board.

“If we go to ballot and have the same response, will the board continue to ignore it?” asked resident Judy Bishop. “What kind of percentage will a ballot vote take?”

“What percentage of voters voted you into office?” asked resident Christine Jezek. “Did you consider that valid? I don’t think it could have been much higher than what you got in the survey.”

“You voted against your constituents,” Bournazian said.

– Volunteers step forward. Several residents offered to volunteer and go door-to-door with a fresh survey if it would speed up the process and illuminate the district’s residents’ wishes.

“I would do it,” said Pauline Smith. “The most important thing is to keep our kids off the streets. We need to do this for the families.”

“I would, too. I am a licensed social worker and work with the elderly in this community and they really want this community center,”said resident Kathy Etchegoyhen. “They’re very disappointed. I believe lots of families would use this.”

Weaver said he had some concerns that the validity and security of a door-to-door survey would be questioned.

The board voted to table the Sunridge office negotiations and concentrate on the November ballot question, something residents still questioned.

“I think we elected you to make decisions that are complicated and if you put it on the ballot, (people) won’t understand,” said resident Paul Etchegoyhen. ” I think a community center at James Lee Park is great. Go for the community center and forget Douglas County. We’re the lowest per capita district, do you think we’re going to get a grant? Forget the grant. Do it with our money. A community center would help the neighborhood.”