Is city violating recreation interlocal agreement?

Published 12:09 am Thursday, July 20, 2017


NATCHEZ — With politics creeping back into recreation, some county leaders are considering killing the long-planned community swimming pool project.

At Monday’s Natchez Board of Aldermen meeting, one agenda item was to discuss recreation. The aldermen voted to go into executive session to discuss personnel involving recreation, Mayor Darryl Grennell said.

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Natchez-Adams County Recreation Commission Chair Tate Hobdy said his understanding was the city was going to discuss allowing the YMCA and recreation commission management of city recreation employees. Hobdy said for more than a year, the city has not held up its end of the recreation interlocal agreement between the parties.

One of the city’s responsibilities in the agreement is to move its recreation employees under the direction of the recreation commission and the YMCA.

“At this point it looks like they have not taken any action to move the recreation employees under the direction of the recreation board and the Y,” Hobdy said. “By not taking any action on this I would interpret this as violating the conditions of the ILA.”

Hobdy said the YMCA is focusing on its fall programs to continue to move the recreation agenda forward.

However, Hobdy said the discussion of the YMCA pulling out of Natchez has occurred amongst YMCA leaders.

“They are concerned that the city is not allowing them to do what they were brought here to do,” Hobdy said. “They have discussed it, but have not decided to do anything yet.”

Natchez YMCA Director Alice Agner confirmed the YMCA had discussed pulling her out of Natchez, but a decision has not been made.

“I am not looking to leave Natchez,” she said. “I came here to help Natchez, not just in recreation but in other ways as much as I can.

“But it is hard to justify me being here if I’m not being allowed to do the things I was brought here to do.”

If the YMCA leaves town, at least two county supervisors have said they would vote to kill the pool deal. District 5 Supervisor Calvin Butler said in his mind the YMCA pulling out would at least delay the pool more.

Speaking for herself and not the recreation commission, Agner, who has experience running and programming pools, said she would not want to manage a pool if she did not have full management authority.

“Being micromanaged in managing a pool would not work right,” she said.

Adams County Board of Supervisors President Mike Lazarus said the only reason some people bought into the idea of the city and county building a pool was because the involvement of the YMCA, which has experience running pools.

“It takes credibility from the whole deal,” Lazarus said. “We (the city and the county) don’t have any experience running a pool. Without proper management, it could end up getting out of hand like the swimming pool did before.”

Lazarus said the whole idea of creating a recreation commission and inviting the YMCA was to take city and county politics out of recreation. He said the county would save money if the Y did leave, but he’d like to see the deal work out for the children.

“I thought the Y would be a major asset to Natchez and Adams County,” Lazarus said. “They have good programs and have access to grants. I can’t understand why they (the city) can’t turn over their employees to let her (Agner) handle it.”

District 2 Supervisor David Carter said he fully supports the YMCA because its involvement was supposed to remove the politics.

“It is like the city is injecting politics back into it, and I don’t think that is going to work,” Carter said. “This whole thing is becoming a political struggle again.

“That has been what has stopped (recreation from moving forward) the last couple of decades, and it appears it will stop it now.”

Carter, who has been vocally against the pool in the past, said if the city will not turn over its assets, he is totally opposed to the pool and the plan. Carter said all you have to do is drive into Duncan Park to see what happened when the city ran a pool.

“I challenge you to find one or two municipal pools in Southwest Mississippi that are a success that are governmentally run,” Carter said. “I don’t think you can.”

Butler said he would hate to see the YMCA leave because the current plan is good for the community.

“The politicians are supposed to get out of recreation and not make it political,” Butler said. “That’s why we have a recreation board.”

While Butler would not say whether he would vote yes or no on pool funding should the YMCA leave, he said the county should not take on liability for the pool.

“If the YMCA did pull out, we’d have to revamp the whole structure with what we are going to do with recreation,” he said. “It would set us back, not only with the pool, but everything else to do with recreation on the table.

“It would put a dagger in recreation all together.”

District 4 Supervisor Ricky Gray said he would not vote to pull out of the recreation deal, which includes the pool.

“I know how important it is for kids to know how to swim, and a splash zone is not going to teach them how to swim,” Gray said. “In the end, I am going to do what is best for the community and what is best for the community is giving kids these life-saving skills.”

Gray said he does not want the YMCA to pull out, but that their problem is with the city, not the county.

“I don’t have a vote on the city board,” Gray said. “I am not going to tell them how to do their job.”

Grennell said the plan is to have a joint session meeting between the city and county after city leaders return from the Mississippi Municipal League meetings, which are next week.

Grennell said his recommendation as mayor is to put the employees under the auspices of the YMCA. Grennell said the employees would still technically be city employees to retain retirement benefits.

“My position is for the Y to stick around,” Grennell said. “My position is to have them oversee recreation for the city, but it is up to the aldermen. Some members of the board have questions and concerns.”

Grennell said one exception would be golf employees due to another, existing contract.

Additional kinks are in the ILA, he said, and those kinks would also be discussed at the joint meeting. Grennell said his concern is handing money to the recreation commission, and if the commission broke the law with how it spent money, the state would crack down on the city, not the recreation commission.

Ward 2 Alderman Billie Joe Frazier said he strongly opposed YMCA control over city employees and city-owned land and facilities.

“I’m going to be perfectly honest, I am not for YMCA control over Natchez recreation — period,” Frazier said.

Frazier said a scenario involving YMCA oversight of municipal recreation was unorthodox.

“I don’t think it happens anywhere else in America,” Frazier said.

Ward 3 Alderwoman Sarah Smith stands on the opposite side of the issue.

“I think it is absolutely necessary to work this out with the YMCA,” Smith said.

Smith said the YMCA had successfully entered into similar agreements in other parts of the country, such as the City of Delaware, Ohio, and North Las Vegas, Nevada.

“(The recreation commission) has worked so hard and they’ve done a lot of great things and have a lot of great intentions,” Smith said.

“I would be saddened and absolutely devastated for our town if we blow this.”

Smith also said she would oppose construction of the pool should the YMCA elect to leave town, and that the YMCA was the only reason she “felt comfortable voting on” the pool in the first place.

“They’ve run pools — many pools before,” Smith said. “Who’s going to do that that works in the city?

“This was something that I felt was a smart thing to do … bring in people with the knowledge and resources that we don’t have.”

Ward 1 Alderwoman Joyce Arceneaux-Mathis said she was not necessarily against the YMCA having oversight, but that the organization would continue to have a limited role until a pool is constructed.

“They are coming into a city that already has its parks run (by city employees),” Arceneaux-Mathis said. “With everything that is going on … what are they bringing to the table that is different from what we already have?”

Arceneaux-Mathis said she thinks the YMCA’s main function would be overseeing a pool and implementing aquatics programs, though she said she is open to any other youth-based programs the organization might propose in the future. The Ward 1 alderwoman specified that she currently does not believe the YMCA should have oversight over the various parks in Natchez.

Arceneaux-Mathis also said she wants to further discuss these personnel matters to expound on what they YMCA’s role would be going forward.

Hobdy said if the YMCA pulled out, the county and city would need to seriously consider whether or not to build the pool. Hobdy said he hoped city leaders would make a decision soon about recreation employees.

“The Y has already started to plan programs through the fall,” Hobdy said. “The programs that they have done already have been pretty well received.

“The Y is trying to make this work, we just need the city to do its part.”
Reporter David Hamilton also contributed to this story.