On the west side of Donner Center’s 50-yard pool, bleachers descend from a concrete roof, which is part of the original structure from 1948.
Sections of the roof’s edge are crumbling, primarily because of decades of exposure to water, which has entered into tiny cracks, frozen and expanded, damaging the concrete bit by bit.
Columbus Parks & Recreation Department Director Ben Wagner strode across the roof Thursday afternoon, his shiny black loafers providing a sharp contrast to the light gray, cracking and crumbling roof.
The mid-August sunlight reflected off the pool’s greenish-blue surface, which seemed to be basking in the afternoon’s serenity in preparation for Sunday’s raucous return of the city’s four-legged residents for the End-of-Summer Doggie Swim.
Wagner turned toward the roof’s west side and pointed over a low wall to another roof, on which sat six air conditioning units that already had exceeded their projected 18-year lifespan by four years. Wagner said parks officials do not want to wait for the units to fail before replacing them.
A closer look
Parks and Recreation
$11.1 million for Donner Center, Hamilton Center, Foundation for Youth, vehicles and equipment
$8.1 million for roads, traffic signals and signs, sidewalk improvements and streetlights
Motor Vehicle Highway
$3.8 million for dump trucks and other vehicles
$3.5 million to replace fire trucks and repair roofs
$1.9 million for vehicles
$1.6 million for trash and packer trucks
To the pool’s north, portions of another roof have been damaged by standing water. After rains, water leaks through the roof’s outer layers and seeps through the ceiling, causing plaster to drop to the floor in the locker rooms.
“It’s causing interior structural damage at this point,” Wagner said.
Donner Center’s crumbling infrastructure exemplifies millions of dollars in needed repairs and vehicle replacement the city’s departments have identified.
A majority of Columbus City Council members want to address some of the most pressing problems with $7.2 million in borrowed money and millions more the city received unexpectedly this year because of an income tax error made at the state level. The council is expected to act on the bond repurposing for a second and final time at 6 p.m. Tuesday. The proposal received preliminary approval Aug. 7.
But that proposed expenditure of about $9 million is but the small tip of a nearly $40 million spending iceberg that is floating toward the city through 2017.
That iceberg includes $11 million in projected spending for the Parks Department, $8 million in road overlays and millions more to replace vehicles: The Sanitation Department has proposed that it be allowed to purchase a $270,000 automated packer truck this year and in three of the next four years, while the Motor Vehicle Highway Department wants to buy two dump trucks this year for $310,000 and eight more in the next five years.
Mayor Kristen Brown said she asked departments to put together a five-year capital budget to get an overview of the spending the city will face.
“This is repair and maintenance on existing facilities and replacing existing vehicles. There’s no growth in there,” she said. “All the needs are genuine.”
City Council President Jim Lienhoop said the long list of upcoming capital expenditures indicates that the city has fallen behind and supports the council majority’s view that the city should use the borrowed money to solve some of the most critical problems.
“If you don’t deal with something today, you have to deal with it later at a higher price,” Lienhoop said. “It’s waiting that got us into this position.”
Roof damage at Donner Center and Hamilton Center Ice Arena, if not addressed, can devolve into wall damage, Lienhoop said.
Fixing Donner’s roof and HVAC system will cost about $450,000, city officials are projecting. That’s part of a roughly $600,000 fix to be paid with the borrowed funds. Nearly $650,000 is needed in the next two years for repairs at Hamilton Center, including $240,000 for a roof and $60,000 for a granite wall.
About $4 million of the $7.2 million loan is earmarked for road repairs.
Wagner said that using borrowed money to address infrastructure needs has been a common occurrence through the city’s recent history.
In 1975, the city borrowed $2.1 million to renovate Lincoln Center and Donner Center. In 1986, the city borrowed $1.4 million to renovate Donner again. In $1992, an $8 million renovation of Mill Race Park included private, federal and locally borrowed funds. Five years later, the Parks Department borrowed $4 million for another upgrade at Lincoln and Donner.
“It’s not like we haven’t taken care of things,” Wagner said. “It’s just time again.”
Brown said the city departments are projecting to have to annually spend $6 million on capital projects and an additional $1.3 million on roads.
The current budget allows for spending of about $2.5 million, leaving an annual shortfall of about $4.8 million.
“We’ve definitely built more than we can afford to maintain over the long term,” Brown said.
The city has few options when it comes to raising additional revenues. Local property taxes, economic development income taxes and county adjusted gross income taxes cannot be raised any further. Those revenue streams will bring more money into the city’s coffers only if the city continues to grow.
The city also plans to spend nearly all of the revenues it is projected to collect next year, despite cutting about $3 million from this year’s budget. And the city also has maxed out its borrowing capacity.
Additional fees have proven unpopular: The City Council in April rescinded a trash fee that generated about $2 million, and both Brown and Lienhoop said they oppose reinstituting the fee.
However, they both said it would make sense to fix roads through a wheel tax, but that tax can be adopted only by the Bartholomew County Council, the members of which oppose the tax.
“We have to start to get creative,” Brown said.
Some roads in Woodside Industrial Park, for example, can be fixed with tax-increment financing dollars, she said. And she hopes to be able to raise private funds for certain Parks Department needs.
By how much those efforts would bridge the projected annual gap of $4.8 million is unclear.
Other projects may have to be abandoned.
For example, repairing the elevator at Mill Race Tower is expected to cost $600,000.
“That’s something that we just can’t afford to do,” Brown said.
The elevator is exposed to flooding in the park and frequently breaks down as a result. Without the elevator, however, the tower does not comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Eventually the city may have to find a private benefactor to maintain the tower or close it altogether, Brown said.
Lienhoop said the conundrum is that the city’s residents, businesses and government officials have come to value the current level of services and quality of life but now are faced with tough choices about paying more or getting less.
Brown said the five-year plan was but a first step in identifying problem areas. She hopes that within the next year the city can find ways to bridge the gap between available funds and needed spending.
“There are no easy answers here,” she said.
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