If you’ve been watching the news, you’ve undoubtedly heard about the roaring success of Roanoke County’s latest venture, the $30 million, taxpayer-funded Green Ridge Splash Park in north county.
Newspaper and television reports as well as county officials have been fairly gushing about the first year of operation, citing 7,000 members and 350,000 visits, and best of all that the new facility, projected to lose $600,000 in its first year, actually made $100,000. County officials reported first year revenues of $2.4 million with expenses of $2.3 million.
And that does sound good, if only it were true.
A more accurate reflection of the costs associated with Green Ridge shows a very different picture. Amazingly, county officials seem to have forgotten about the $30 million they borrowed to build the park. According to Windsor Hills District board of supervisor Ed Elswick, an early skeptic of the project, the numbers being cited by the county are “operational costs only,” and do not include the largest single expense item, the mortgage. (Most homeowners would have no problem balancing their household budgets if they could just ignore their largest monthly expense – the mortgages.) In effect, that’s exactly what Roanoke County officials are doing as they spin this “success story” to the media.
And what was the real cost? You’ll have to add another $1.9 million in interest expenses for the $30 million borrowed through a bond issue to build the splash park.
So, if you’re going to be a nitpicker and add things like interest expenses to the operation, this “hugely successful” first year ends up costing county taxpayers a cool $1.8 million. And that’s apparently with attendance numbers that exceeded expectations.
The county’s justification for the controversial Green Ridge project was that it would be a wonderful amenity for county residents. But its location behind ValleyPointe north of the Roanoke airport makes it geographically undesirable for the majority of county residents. It is more convenient to many Botetourt County neighborhoods than to most county neighborhoods. Of the 350,000 visits, about 95,000 were by non-county residents.
So let’s see: If the facility lost $1.8 million to provide this service for 350,000 visits, county taxpayers were in effect paying an extra $5.14 every time someone entered the facility. And that’s for all visitors – County, City, Botetourt, etc. So all you non-county residents, how about pitching in an extra $5.14 on top of the regular charges next time you go, so you won’t be mooching on the county folk.
How did this happen? Consider two factors. First, the real estate boom of the last decade when real estate values climbed rapidly and our local governments’ coffers overflowed with revenues from taxes on residential real estate. Second, take a look at the county property tax rates. On a per capita basis, Roanoke County has the highest property tax rate of any metropolitan county in the Commonwealth, according to rates from the Weldon Cooper Center.
So, rather than reduce taxes, the county did what all governments seem to do; it looked around for other ways to spend your tax dollars.
Hence, a grandiose new county library on the south side and, just to be fair and balanced, a “splash park” on the north side. Besides, it’s a great economic development tool. When potential business prospects want to talk about tax rates, show them the new sliding board at the splash park.
The impulse to retire debt, or allow citizens to keep more of their hard-earned income, never seems to be considered.
Pete Haislip, director of parks and recreation at the county, said in January the county was conducting surveys of those people who were members but had left the Green Ridge facility. The county hopes the surveys will help create a better experience for its members.
What about a better experience for its taxpaying residents?