Funding for Bell Gardens aquatics center hits snag

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By Alfredo Santana

Contributing Writer

BELL GARDENS — City officials are considering shifting between $10 million and $15 million from the general fund budget to comply with new county requirements to prove that the new John Anson Ford Park’s aquatics center project will be fully financed before demolition of the old facility begins.

City Manager Michael O’Kelly told the City Council that staff will prepare a petition to authorize the reallocation of funds so the item can be discussed and voted on before the year’s end to meet rules from the Los Angeles County Development Authority.

The caveat is that Bell Gardens must provide evidence it has raised the $23.7 million it estimates it will cost to tear down the old facility to build three modern pools, a gym and ventilated locker rooms.

So far, the city has been able to raise $13.5 million in state and federal contributions, but none of the outside sources has actually disbursed the money, in addition to $2.5 million allocated by the City Council from federal community development block grant funds.

Elizabeth Nava, the city’s director of Recreation and Community Services, reported to the City Council last week that the project received a boost from county Supervisor Janice Hahn, who committed $4 million to the project, in addition to a $6 million Federal Land and Water Grant promised last year, $2 million pledged from Assemblywoman Cristina Garcia, and $1.5 million from appropriations spearheaded by U.S. Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard.

The city already has spent $1.5 million in engineering and architectural drawings from the block grants approved from 2019 through 2022.

Nava argued that reallocating the cash from the city’s general fund would not cause the project to suffer more delays, and that the procedure would save Bell Gardens lots of money in interest rates if it were to apply for a bank’s loan.

Assuming that the City Council would approve switching the funds, a contractor yet to be hired would need to submit bids for the job, and start demolition by next April.

“One option that we are considering is coming before the council to ask to agree to fund the balance of the project, with the understanding that allocations from Janice Hahn, Lucille Roybal-Allard and Cristina Garcia will arrive,” Nava said at the Oct. 24 council meeting.

Both O’Kelly and Nava indicated that staff will continue to identify new funding sources for the aquatics center.

O’Kelly estimated that based on progress made by employees, additional sponsors may be found before the end of the year.

“I think [the county Development Authority is] afraid that by putting $1, $2 or $6 million there the entire project may not be completed,” O’Kelly told the City Council.

The city also will will have to consolidate two separate phases to remove the crumbling structure and build the new facility into one single bid document, and submit it to county officials for review and approval before the city opens the process for contract bidding.

Nava said that RJM Design Group, the firm hired for architecture and engineering services, is updating its drafts to make it a one bid project.

“Initially, we had planned the demolition portion in order to get that started sooner, and then bid out the construction portion. Now we have to combine both,” Nava said in reference to plans to start deconstruction this month.

She gave estimated timelines for the funds to arrive in city coffers, and underscored that each source has a set of unique procedures to meet before the allocations clear.

First, for the $6 million Federal Land and Water funds to arrive, a second agreement has to make it out of Sacramento with authorization from the federal fund.

That process “is out of our hands,” Nava said. “It’s an internal procedure of the state. Once we have an agreement that we can execute, then the money will follow.”

On the county front, Nava said she has constant contact with Supervisor Hahn’s staff, and is hopeful that the money would be disbursed in the next three to four weeks.

In addition, Nava said that she received an email from the state notifying the city that the contribution pledged by Assemblywoman Garcia would “likely” be released by the end of the year after the city fills out a set of forms.

The federal funds promised by Rep. Roybal-Allard are tied to a transportation and housing and urban bill slated to be voted on the first quarter of 2023.

“We expect to hear noticeable word in the spring of next year,” Nava said about the pending federal funds.

Meanwhile, the city extended a partnership with neighboring Montebello to provide swim classes throughout the fall, including water aerobics for seniors at a pool undergoing water heater repairs at Chet Holifield Park.

The city’s recreation staff is getting ready to offer swim lesson during the Montebello Unified School District’s spring break and extend the summer aquatics program and other activities until the John Anson Ford Park’s aquatic complex is completed.

It is not uncommon for small cities strained by limited resources to reallocate funds from the general fund to complete community projects or to support operations in properties that may not be self-sustaining.

However, that practice may trigger scrutiny from other authorities, such as the California State Auditor’s Office, an agency that monitors the fiscal health of cities.

Last month, Bell Gardens was ranked 75 out of 430 municipalities for moderate risk of financial distress, and received a grade of 60.16 out of 100 points after the state’s auditor office evaluated the 2020-21 budget.

Although the evaluation carries a time lag of two years, Bell Gardens has earned a moderate financial risk ranking since 2016. The latest dashboard assessment gave clues that the city “may need to increase revenue, or reduce services or other expenses, to deal with a major economic event” like a recession.

“This city should carefully evaluate its financial position in order to ensure that it is prepared for unforeseen challenges and does not become distressed in the future,” the financial risk report stated.

In the 2021-22 fiscal year, Bell Gardens adopted a general fund budget for $42.28 million, and approved expenditures for $35 million. About 71% of those funds went to cover police operations, public works and recreation services.



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