Finlay Park would offer a lot more water features and a $20.6 million price tag if Columbia City Council can settle on how to pay for it and other high-dollar projects.
City Council continued to wrestle Tuesday with how to fund a growing list of high-dollar projects that would enhance Columbians’ quality of life, a list led by the cost of overhauling the dilapidated Finlay Park.
Consultants have submitted a plan for the downtown park that calls for a circular building with a glass lookout from which visitors could gaze over the park, a tiered series of waterfalls that would cascade from the signature water fountain that has become a landmark, walking and biking trails, a bridge across the existing pond, a destination playground and a new entrance way along Taylor Street that could feature the popular Busted Plug sculpture.
Council once again talked about but made no decisions on issuing 20- to 30-year bonds – effectively loans – that would be repaid from taxes paid by patrons of the capital city’s restaurants and bars. This fiscal year, that 2 percent tax is projected to generate $10.4 million, growing to an estimated $11.5 during the upcoming fiscal year that begins July 1.
The $22.9 million, 10-project list is likely to grow now that council has created a working group that is to review a range of unidentified proposals in parts of town where residents say they’ve been overlooked for years.
The split on council was visible immediately.
Newly elected Councilman Howard Duvall said he’s hesitant to vote for a large bond, saying the city’s finances are tight.
Mayor Steve Benjamin said, “I’m supportive of all the requests that are before us. Most of these have the potential to be game changers for the city.”
But Benjamin agreed to removing a vote on the funding plan from Tuesday’s council agenda. Council did not set a firm date for a vote, but some said the group that includes three council members and business people might compile a final list for a decision in March.
The conceptual plan for Finlay Park, often referred to as having the potential to become the “crown jewel” of Columbia’s park system, also calls for:
▪ Designing the circular building so that visitors would look out at panoramic views of the city center.
▪ Installing a grotto with a walkway next to the circular building.
▪ Placing an open-air plaza that would have tables and umbrellas at the base of the building.
▪ Moving the concert stage so that it overlooks the pond and directs sound toward the coroner of Assembly and Laurel streets. A children’s splash pad would be built near the stage.
▪ Building a children’s playground that could become a regional destination with a range of features and activities.
▪ Redesigning the leaky pond and placing native flora in the water.
▪ Converting the open space off Taylor Street in to a “great lawn” bordered by art gardens and bathrooms.
▪ Adding bike-sharing stations.
Columbia’s chief financial officer, Jeff Palen, said the city could finance as much as $29 million through bonds without jeopardizing its credit rating. But council also could dip into other income, he said.
With this fiscal year a little more than half over, council dipped into its meal tax reserves by about $840,000 to pay for the $11.25 million in spending it approved. The tax, also known as a “hospitality tax,” is a coveted pot of public money for entertainment and arts groups who say their events attract tourists.
Council has drained any hospitality tax reserves, leaving what city budget director Missy Caughman calculates is a $525 deficit by the end of June when the current fiscal year ends.
▪ Council got a report that October’s floods postponed by six months the completion of a key part of the city’s sewer system. The new completion date of the Crane Creek sewer bypass line is mid-March.
▪ City Hall has set Feb. 1 as the new date for a meeting with neighbors who live around the new $37 million baseball stadium to hear the findings of consultants on ballpark’s impact on noise and lights in their communities.
The meeting on Monday, Feb. 1 at 5:30 p.m. in the Earlewood Park community center. The park is at 1111 Parkside Drive.