Questions arise over parks grant spending


The former director of the Seymour Parks and Recreation Department is questioning how the city is spending $100,000 in grant money.

Bob Tabeling says the funds are not being used how he intended when he wrote the IMPACT grant, which was awarded to the city by the Jackson County Visitor Center in 2019.

At that time, the grant proposal included three projects to be completed in sequential order. The first project was the construction of two new baseball/softball diamonds at Freeman Field Athletic Complex, followed by construction of two pickleball courts and finally completion of the third phase of the skatepark.

Tabeling said the projects were prioritized based on tourism value, and the skatepark would only be completed if there was enough money left after completing the other two projects.

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He estimated the baseball/softball diamonds would cost $132,950 and the pickleball courts would require $27,100, leaving around $40,000 for the skatepark.

The grant required the city to provide matching funds, so the total amount available for the projects would be $200,000.

To date, none of the grant money has been spent, and only preliminary drainage work, paid for by the parks department, has been done in preparation of construction of the new diamonds at Freeman Field. 

"What’s happening now in this process is that we are in the last four months of the year, and the criteria for the grant was that the projects had to be finished sequential and they had to be finished by the end of this year," Tabeling said.

Now, all three projects are happening at the same time, and some of the projects will carry over into 2021, he said.

"If that is the case, where are those funds going to come from next year if the total grant gets spent on a portion of each one of these projects?" he asked.

Mayor Matt Nicholson said the city is putting up additional dollars to complete all three projects.

The city is planning to issue a capital bond still this year and will use a portion of the proceeds to complete all three projects, which new Parks Director Stacy Findley said will cost around $250,000.

In a revised grant budget from the city, $127,450 will be spent on the ball diamonds, $18,800 on the pickleball courts and $100,000 on the skatepark.

"My overall goal with these three projects is to show that Seymour Parks and Recreation is constantly working to improve the lives of residents as well as visitors through quality parks and recreation experiences," Findley said.

Tabeling said the current administration is diverting grant funds away from the ball diamonds and pickleball courts in order to have more money to finish the skatepark.

He brought his concerns to the city council Aug. 24.

"There’s documentation that there is now $100,000 earmarked for the skatepark, and that was never criteria set up with the grant," he said.

The parks department needs to follow the grant process spelled out by the visitor center, he added.

"I want to make the council aware that the process is not being followed, and that brings up concerns over how the money is actually being spent," he said.

The city and parks board met with the visitor center board Monday in a closed meeting to discuss the concerns.

It was decided an extension would be granted by the visitor center to allow all three projects to be completed with some work to be finished up in the spring of 2021.

The delayed work will include the addition of a sidewalk, benches, scoreboards and shade cover for the new ball diamonds and striping and surfacing of the pickleball courts. The skatepark will be completed by the end of October.

Arann Banks, executive director of the visitor center, said due to the change in administration, it’s possible it wasn’t clear to the new leaders how the funding should trickle down with the ball diamonds being the highest priority.

"This is not a quality of life grant. This is strictly a tourism grant, so the money needs to fund projects that will increase tourism the most, and from our perspective, that is the ball diamonds because of the tournaments," Banks said.

There also were a lot of questions from the visitor center board, she added.

"We wanted to make sure everyone was on the same page," she said. "And we are. This is a partnership."

Nicholson said he feels all three projects are important and together serve as an opportunity to attract more people to the city.

"The ball fields will be good for sports tourism in our area. The pickleball courts and finishing the skatepark project will be added benefits for community members on a daily basis and will generate day trip visitors from out of town," he said.

Tabeling said his decision to address his concerns with the city had nothing to do with Nicholson’s decision not to keep him on as parks and recreation director or that he doesn’t want the skatepark to be finished.

"The skatepark is finished," he said. "It’s a matter of do we want to add to it."

But Findley said the skatepark has been unfinished for many years.

"I am excited for the skate community to be able to use the skatepark to its full capacity," she said. "There are opportunities for youth skateboarding and inline skating classes as well as hosting events and tournaments."

Tabeling said it’s important to him to see the rules followed so that future grant funding opportunities through the visitor center are not jeopardized.

"I’ve heard that there are a lot of disgruntled grant committee people because the funds were not being spent properly," he said. "So I think we have a responsibility to make sure that’s right before we move forward."

He recommended the council stop the process until everyone was satisfied with how the funds were being spent.

"We’ve waited eight months to start the process. What’s another week to clarify to make sure that everything is being done according to plan and that no funds are being reallocated to other projects?" he asked.

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