Consultant to help decide which project facilities district should pursue

Unwilling to make a quick decision about what regional project to put before voters next year, members of the Tri-Cities Regional Public Facilities District decided to hire a consultant to help them pick one.

The board voted Wednesday to have E.D. Hovee of Vancouver present a proposal within 20 days on how quickly it can vet the plans for a convention center expansion, a $14 million investment ti develop the Hanford Reach Interpretative Center, a $35 million performing arts center and a $37.5 million aquatic center.

Having an outside review of the proposals could delay for months a final decision and make it all but impossible for the facilities district to get a sales tax measure on the November 2012 ballot, said board member Don Britain, a Kennewick city councilman.

Hovee helped the facilities district in developing the long list of potential projects and would be familiar with the four finalists, noted Stan Strebel, Pasco deputy city manager, who assists the board as needed.

Hovee's initial offer suggested the task would cost about $24,500 but could go up, depending on the amount the analysis needed.

"In view of Wenatchee, having expertise and a third party (involved) would be valuable," said Matt Watkins, board chairman and mayor of Pasco.

The recent $42 million default on Wenatchee's Town Toyota Area triggered a statewide alarm about underfinanced municipal projects. The default produced a bill in the state Senate that would require a state-directed review of all public facilities district projects, if approved.

But board member John Givens, who sits on the Kennewick Public Facilities District board, said involving a consultant will cost valuable time.

"The only way we're going to meet the time frame we've set is to start excluding projects," he said.

Time is of the essence, said Britain, noting that getting the measure on the ballot is one thing, but just as important is having time this summer to sell the project to voters.

A regional facility project needs voter approval on a sales tax increase of up to 0.02 percent in Richland, Kennewick and Pasco to be financially feasible. Selecting the right project and pitching it to voters in those cities is the challenge, Britain said.

"We've talked a lot about the urgency, but what are we marketing to voters, a concept, an idea? Or do we just want them to tell us it is OK to tax them? Hovee will give us the answers," said Steve Young, Kennewick mayor and board member.

Board member Sandra Kent, who is on the Richland City Council, said she wasn't "crazy about spending money on an evaluation," but would vote to involve Hovee so the board can be assured the four proposals are using "good numbers."

"We need to be truthful with everybody, including the stakeholders, especially if we are not going to get this on the November ballot," Britain said.

The board also wrestled with the risk of going ahead for a November ballot issue while the Senate bill was pending that could end up slowing down the regional facility district project anyway.

"If it passes ... who knows how long this will take," Givens said.

Young waved off the bill issue, predicting the bill has a long way to go and many changes ahead.

The unanimous vote to pursue a contract with Hovee included a consensus that the consultant be sensitive to meeting a tight timeline to meet the November ballot deadlines.

The board is expected to review Hovee's proposal at its Jan. 11 meeting in Kennewick and to decide then if a proposal can be put to voters next November.