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Jackson voters to speak on indoor pool issue

The aquatic center would include a competition pool as well as a leisure pool (pictured) complete with splash pad, therapy pool and nets for both basketball and volleyball. ClarkNexsen rendering The aquatic center would include a competition pool as well as a leisure pool (pictured) complete with splash pad, therapy pool and nets for both basketball and volleyball. ClarkNexsen rendering

Like voters across the country, Jackson County residents are electing representatives for offices ranging from congressman to commissioner, but this fall they’ll decide a more tangible question as well — whether or not the county should borrow $20 million to build a new aquatic center in Cullowhee.

“Shall the order authorizing Jackson County general obligation bonds in the maximum amount of $20,000,000 plus interest to pay capital costs of providing indoor pool facilities and paying related costs, and providing that additional taxes may be levied in an amount sufficient to pay the principal and interest on the bonds, as adopted by the County’s Board of Commissioners on July 10, 2020, be approved?” asks the referendum question printed on the ballot. 

Voters can then chose one of two simple answers: yes or no. A yes is a vote to borrow the money and build the pool, and a no is a vote not to borrow the money and to go without a pool. 

General obligation bonds are typically the least costly financing option available for potential bond projects, and the bond referendum gives voters the power to authorize the government to raise funds through the sale of general obligation bonds. Once the bonds are paid off, the tax associated with the bond goes away. 


The plan

While Sylva has an outdoor pool and Western Carolina University makes its indoor pool available for some uses, Jackson County residents have long clamored for an indoor swimming pool all their own, with 86.4 percent of 638 survey respondents in a 2013 recreation master plan update saying that a centrally located indoor swimming pool is “important” or “very important.” A follow-up survey in 2019 saw 93.7 percent of 1,709 people say they would support an indoor pool, with 68 percent saying they’d support such a project even if it meant raising taxes. 

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However, those surveys polled a limited number of people, and they were distributed at county rec centers — among other locations and methods — so it’s possible that the response rate was greater among people who were more likely to be favorable to the pool question. The ballot will serve as the ultimate survey on the issue. 

Bringing the question to the ballot has cost the county $55,500, including $37,900 for the Asheville-based firm ClarkNexsen to develop architectural plans and cost estimates, $2,600 for geotechnical work from Wood Engineering, $7,500 for the bond attorney fee and $7,500 for education marketing materials. 

ClarkNexsen’s design calls for a 30,800-square-foot two-pool complex added to the north of the existing recreation center. The facility would include both a leisure pool and a 25-yard competition pool. Renderings show a leisure pool complete with a splash pad, adjustable basketball hoops, a vortex therapy pool and a volleyball net. The six-lane competition pool would include a foldable one-meter diving board and a climbing wall rising out of the pool itself, as well as seating for spectators. The addition would also include locker rooms, a party room and renovated classroom areas at the union with the existing building. 

Each pool would have floor-to-ceiling windows with views toward the southwest, an orientation that aims to keep the visual connection to the park and to optimize solar orientations. 

Building the aquatic center in the proposed location would impact the current parking situation, eliminating about 75 spaces. However, 165 new spaces would be added east and south of the existing rec center to compensate. 


The cost

The visual renderings are enticing, but the project won’t come cheap. Construction is estimated at $13.7 million in 2020 dollars, with a $1.85 million cost escalation built in based on the assumption that construction will begin in June 2022 and wrap up in January 2024. Additional fees for construction management, bonds and insurance, technology/equipment, furniture and fixtures, and fees for surveys, permitting, geotechnical work, architectural services and the like, plus closing costs, bring the total project estimate to $19.95 million. Once built, the pool will cost an estimated $380,324 per year to operate once expected membership revenues are subtracted out. 

Based on the county’s current tax values, a property tax increase of 2.22 cents per $100 of property value would cover the cost of paying the debt down over 15 years, with an increase of 0.4 cents per $100 covering operating costs. Therefore, commissioners have discussed raising the property tax rate from 38 to 40.26 cents per $100 of property value fund the pool, if the referendum passes. On a house valued at $150,000, that would amount to a tax increase of $33.90 per year and a total tax bill of $609. Once the bond is paid off, the tax associated with construction costs would go away.

Jackson County currently has the fourth-lowest property tax rate in the state, with Carteret County in Eastern N.C. claiming the lowest rate at 33 cents per $100. Not far ahead are Swain County, at 36 cents per $100, and Macon, at 37.47 cents per $100. The title of highest property tax rate in North Carolina belongs to Scotland County in south-central N.C., which charges its residents $1 per $100 of property value. If Jackson County’s tax rate increased by 2.26 cents per $100, it would move up two places to have the sixth-lowest tax rate in the state. 

However, a twist in the plot is that Jackson County is currently in the middle of a tax revaluation that is expected to cause the county’s total taxable value to rise by more than 10 percent. If that happens, then the same tax rate would result in a higher tax bill for individual property owners and a revenue increase for the county. Depending on how the numbers shake out, the actual tax rate increase required to offset the cost of the pool could be lower than 2.26 cents per $100.


Commissioner approval required

The outcome also depends on commissioners’ wishes. If voters approve the bond referendum, commissioners will then have to vote to actually issue the debt — even if voters approve the bond, commissioners have the ability to vote no. The reverse is not true, however. If voters reject the referendum, commissioners will not be able to issue the debt. 

When asked whether, in the case of approval from voters, the vote is likely to take place before or after the winners of next month’s election are seated, Chairman Brian McMahan said that has not yet been decided. 

The current board has been generally favorable to the indoor pool concept — the body voted unanimously to place the question on the ballot — and while Commissioners Mickey Luker and Ron Mau will leave the board in December, all four candidates running to replace them said they, also, would vote in favor of the project if voters approve the referendum question. 

Republican Mark Letson, who is running for the District 4 seat, said that while he supports the project he would not want to fund it by raising taxes on Jackson County residents — rather, he said, he’s support creating a new tax on second homeowners to cover the cost. 

If built, the aquatics center would be open from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Saturday and 1 to 7 p.m. Sundays. The Jackson County Recreation and Parks Department would offer a range of payment options — a single-day pool-only pass would cost $7 for an individual, $10 for a family and $5 for a senior, while a year-long whole-facility pass would cost $435 for an individual, $515 for a family and $220 for a senior. A variety of other membership and payment plans would be available as well. 

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