It’s only $36,000, but the debate over Bossier City paying a tennis pro to oversee programming of that recreational offering strikes at the heart of the city’s big-spending ways and serves as a microcosm for any municipality on acceptable deployment of taxpayer dollars.
Last week, the City Council took up the matter of renewing a contract with the individual, Todd Killen, who has coordinated these programs for the past six years at the Bossier Tennis Center, and otherwise coaches on the side. While the city picks up operating and maintenance costs of the facility in in its northern part, the list of provided services required is long, including giving lessons, conducting clinics, running tournaments and leagues, and offering repairs and merchandise, all together necessitating the hiring of employees.
If that sounds overwhelming, consider the leeway granted for the contractor to make money. The contract allows him to retain all revenue derived from tennis instruction, the sale of merchandise and apparel, food and beverages (if any, except vending machines), court fees, memberships, racket stringing fees, league fees, tournament fees and equipment rental. That Killen wants to renew for up to three years indicates he doesn’t think he’ll take a bath on this arrangement.
When the matter came up, Republican Councilor Chris Smith inquired as to whether the city ought to be in this business in the first place. The matter became particularly trenchant on the heels of the budget workshop just prior to the meeting, where all city departments were asked to take a two percent cut even as the overall city budget increased four percent over 2022 estimated expenditures due mainly to insurance and utilities increases – except for Parks and Recreation, which oversees the contract, that asked for large increases.
The budget also reiterated the money pit status of both the city’s Brookshires Grocery Arena and Civic Center. The former projects to lose nearly $400,000 next year and the latter over $300,000, both rescued by transfers from the city’s Hotel/Motel Fund that collects occupancy taxes but in an amount that clearly well exceeds the actual taxes collected by individuals who stays directly resulted from activities at either venue. These also could be considered objects of privatization along with the Tennis Center.
Statements passed out to councilors but not made public, and reaffirmed by Killen, showed substantial revenues and profit-making most years. This prompted GOP Councilor Brian Hammons to call for the city receiving greater city revenues from that stream, and, surprisingly, one of the big government graybeards, Democrat Councilor Bubba Williams, echoed Smith’s view that the city should investigate shedding the center.
Perhaps predictably, this prompted the biggest government and least competition Council advocate, graybeard GOP Councilor David “We don’t bid” Montgomery, to defend the current no-bid arrangement, calling it a quality of life matter. He grouped it with the Arena, Civic Center, and swimming pools, claiming it attracted people to live in the city (despite the nearly zero population growth experienced 2010 to 2020) and that it would cost more to for the city to run the Tennis Center itself.
This misses the point entirely on two levels. For example, it’s easily arguable that thousands, perhaps as many as ten thousand or more, children and their family members benefit from having city pools, and these prove especially helpful with children out of school in the summer to beat the heat and divert their energies from potential mischief. But, tennis? Apparently, there are only around 80 memberships at the Center, and a few times that likely come by occasionally. Keep in mind as well that tennis isn’t a cheap sport, either, so it’s not like it serves as an outlet for lower-income families to enjoy to some recreation, as a pool might. Rather, it appeals to a small niche audience for which Bossier City taxpayers foot the bill.
Yet there’s another question here beyond whether the city should subsidize the activities of a disproportionately higher-income few. If it chooses to do so, it should bid out the business, as recommended by the Louisiana Legislative Auditor as the service exceeds $30,000 ($108,000 total if both parties exercise their annual renewal option). That way, perhaps Hammons’ desire to see greater city financial benefit could materialize with a bidder offering to give the city a cut of revenues and/or decrease the contract price.
Unwisely, the Council voted to move the no-bid contract to a final reading, with only Smith and Williams opposing. It should pull back from final approval at its next meeting, instead proposing to extend a short-term contract with Killen only to year’s end. In the meantime, at the very least it should put one out to bid to pick up at the start of 2023 and lasting only that year, and launch a study concluded next year whether either to sell the facility or to close it and repurpose it. A sale certainly could help citizens as they groan under a crushing $8,500 or so per capita debt, by far the state’s highest among its significant municipalities.
If Killen, or anybody, can win a bid and in a manner that shows the city can derive enough revenue and a robust-enough contribution to quality-of-life, as determined by a privatization or sale study, to keep it open and under contractor operation, then everybody wins. If not, it must close the center to benefit taxpayers instead of politicians looking to show off expensive baubles for which they claim credit.