State calls strike on city

By Marlena Hartz : CNJ staff writer

More than $150,000 in legislative funds is being withheld from the city of Clovis because the state has determined the funds would be misused if they paid for construction at a Clovis baseball field.

The New Mexico Department of Finance and Administration has determined Clovis cannot be reimbursed for $152,600 it spent on construction of a baseball field at Bob Spencer Park unless the New Mexico Legislature clarifies the language it used to appropriate the funds, according to DFA officials.

The Legislature appropriated $500,000 to the city in 2005 “to plan, design, construct, equip and furnish a Wellness and Youth Development Center,” according to DFA officials.

“This language does not allow for the completion of the baseball field. So, that is not an allowable expenditure for this appropriation,” DFA spokesperson and policy analyst Stephanie Lenhart said.

Expecting to be reimbursed for its expenses, the city submitted receipts to DFA for earth work, asphalt, concrete, masonry, baseball netting, landscaping, steel, and plumbing and electrical installments, DFA Local Government Division Deputy Director Sam Ojinaga said.

Clovis City Manager Joe Thomas contends the city always intended to build a baseball field as part of the Wellness Center and the legislative donors of the wellness project were aware of the city’s intent for the legislative funds. He said the dispute with the DFA over language used to appropriate the funds is simply “a misunderstanding.”

“We’ve discussed this with our local legislators, and there is no question as to the original intent (of the appropriation).” he said.

“It’s a matter of working through some paperwork,” said Thomas, who is confident the city will be reimbursed.

Until the Legislature convenes in January, however, the language of the appropriation cannot be altered, according to DFA officials.

A legislative donor of the wellness project appropriation, Rep. Anna Crook, R-Clovis, also called the dispute over the language “a misunderstanding.”

“In our (legislators’) minds,” Crook said, “the Wellness Center included baseball, soccer and swimming.”

The language used in the appropriation unfortunately never “spelled out baseball,” said Crook, who is also confident the appropriation language will be clarified in January.

Another hiccup with the language used to appropriate funds for the Wellness Center has been pointed out by the DFA.

“There is no ‘center’ involved in a baseball field,” Ojinaga said.

In a description of the project drafted for the 2005 legislative session, the city described its imagined Wellness and Youth Development Center: “It will include a regulation baseball field … competition pool, Water Park with a water slide … multipurpose building for indoor soccer, baseball field, football, and a running track. The locker rooms and bathrooms will service the facility as well as the adjacent softball and baseball fields,” the document reads.

The Spencer Park ball field, however, is not adjacent to any wellness center, DFA officials pointed out.

The locale of the ball field in relation to the center is one of many disintegrated plans for the center.

Since the idea of the center was born roughly three years ago, the city’s initial hope for a centralized fitness center crumbled under financial and architectural constraints, according to local officials.

“It would make it easier if it (center) was all in one place, but you learn from all experiences,” Crook said. “It’s kind of like wanting a Mercedes,” she said. “If you can’t afford a Mercedes, you get what you can.”

Plans to put a sports complex near Spencer Park — pitched in the 2005 legislative session — proved unrealistic in further studies of the project. As the city proceeded with designs for the first phase of the project — a ball field — even that proved much greater in scope than imagined, local officials said.

There was not enough land for the center near Spencer Park and the cost of the project spiked when the state required bathrooms be included near the ball field. Including bathrooms added about $172,000 to the price of the project, according to minutes from an April 6, 2006, Clovis City Commission meeting. And rising construction costs further deepened costs, Thomas said.

A ball field originally estimated at $600,000 (for design and construction) has cost nearly $1 million, Thomas said.

Rising asphalt charges tacked about $2,800 to the ball field bill, and an additional fresh-water well for the irrigation of the ball field went to bid for about $60,000, City Commission minutes show.

Bleachers, landscaping and lighting for the field also ended up being more expensive than anticipated, Thomas said.

“It was a concept,” Thomas said. “Concepts don’t always work out the way they were planned.”

Construction at the baseball field is about 70 to 80 percent complete, and arrangements for its completion are finished, according to Thomas.

Another $624,000 was appropriated for the Wellness and Youth Development Center in the 2006 Legislative Session, according to the Legislature’s Web site.

Local officials plan to use the funds to embark on Phase II of the four-phased Wellness Center project. Tentative plans for Phase II are to demolish Play Inc. and build a new natatorium and office building on the site, Thomas said.

The third and fourth phases of the project — construction of an indoor recreation complex and an outdoor soccer field — have not yet been funded.