Columbus councilors recoil at natatorium's $1.2 yearly projected deficit

A draft of a business plan for the city's new natatorium projects that it will operate at an annual deficit of about $1.2 million, Columbus Councilors learned Tuesday night.

Parks and Recreation Director James Worsley presented the business plan to councilors during a special called work session. It projected the facility would have annual expenses of about $2.1 million and revenues of about $900,000.

Several Councilors were not pleased with the news.

"That's a mighty big deficit, and frankly it's not one that we were led to believe that we'd be facing," said Councilor Skip Henderson. "I'm a little in shock."

Councilor Judy Thomas expressed concern over the fact that the plan calls for eight full-time employees and 26 part-time employees.

"I'm very concerned about the personnel needs," Thomas said.

Worsley responded to councilors' concerns by pointing out that the natatorium is a state-of-the-art facility that will be open almost 90 hours per week, requiring two people in many positions.

"I would advise councilors that you want to start out the way you want to end up," Worsley said. "You don't want to under-budget or under-provide staff. This is going to be a jewel for Columbus, and we want to make sure that we have the ability to operate."

Worsley said the facility is more like a business than a program and should be looked at that way when planning the staffing and schedule.

"A business that has a $1.2 million deficit does take a look at its personnel," Thomas said. "The $1.2 million is a big deal."

Councilor Glenn Davis said he is concerned that if the city keeps adding facilities such as the natatorium that require expensive maintenance, the city won't be able to maintain basic city services. Mayor Teresa Tomlinson said expanding the amenities for residents requires city leaders to make choices.

The natatorium is in the early stage of construction and should start to take visible shape in the next week or two, Deputy City Manager David Arrington said. It is expected to open next spring, so its impact on the coming fiscal 2013 budget will be about only $500,000, Tomlinson said.

In addition to hearing the natatorium business plan, councilors discussed proposed changes to the Consolidated Government's employee pension plan. Councilors came to no conclusion on how to proceed and will take up the issue again soon.