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Manchester city to vote on assuming full responsibility for Conference Center

Manchester’s Board of Mayor and Aldermen (BOMA) will soon vote on a proposal to take full responsibility for the operating deficit of the Manchester-Coffee County Conference Center.

In a special called finance meeting Wednesday (Oct. 28), the Manchester Finance Committee decided to recommend an ordinance to the full BOMA that would include the city being responsible for any operating losses that come with the conference center (located on Hospitality Blvd.). Currently, those operating losses are split evenly between the Coffee County government and taxpayers and the Manchester City government and taxpayers.

The proposal will need to pass the full BOMA – a vote that could take place as soon as next regular meeting, which is scheduled for 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, Nov. 2, and would also need approval of the full Coffee County Commission.

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“Basically, the only options we have is to take this [conference center] over or shut it down or sell it,” explained Manchester alderman Mark Messick, who is also on the Manchester Finance Committee. “I think shutting it down would be a great giant step backward for the city, and for the county for that matter.”

The center has long been contentious on the local political scene for its yearly operating losses that have been split between the county and city governments. Advocates often argue the financial impact of the center goes much further than operating losses when accounting for hotel/motel tax and other local expenditures related to the building.

According to the Manchester budget, the city paid out $195,668.99 to cover operating losses to the center for the fiscal year 2019-2020 (these numbers have yet to be audited). That means the county also paid an identical amount, bringing operating losses to approximately $391,337.98 for the year. If the full BOMA were to approve the city taking over the center, the city would be on the hook for all of that loss.

Manchester Mayor Marilyn Howard is not happy with the current agreement and would like negotiations to continue.

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“I don’t know that this is the best deal for the city taxpayers of Manchester as it is currently structured,” said Manchester Mayor Marilyn Howard “I  was not involved in any of these discussions. I have expressed my desire to the board to go back to the county and work out an agreement that would be better suited for the taxpayers of this city. As the new mayor, I eel like that is what I’m called to do in this situation. The citizens of Manchester are the people we serve and represent and they deserve our very best effort. I feel like this is being rushed.”

Alderman Bob Bellamy said the city can cover that amount without increasing taxes or dipping into reserves because the debt service payments on the building end this year.

“We make our last payment on the debt of the building this upcoming June,” explained Bellamy. “We can take that money that was going to debt service every year and use it to cover the other part of those operating losses at the current level.”

According to Manchester Chief Financial Officer Bridget Anderson, the debt payment the city is due to pay this year is approximately $204,000. This will be the final payment for the building.

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“Once it’s paid off, the current partnership or agreement we have (with the county) is basically over or dissolved,” said Messick. “So something new has to be worked out.”

It is widely understood that the county government is not interested in continuing with the operations of the center. Coffee County Mayor Gary Cordell said the full commission would need to approve these changes and he anticipates that will happen.

“The full commission will have to agree with that,” explained Cordell “It’s important to understand that this is not an attempt by the county to close the doors of the conference center. We hope the city of Manchester can continue to manage the center and have success. But it’s time for the county to move on.”

If approved by both governments, the county will maintain half-equity ownership in the building. Should the city decide to cease operations of the center and sell the building, the county would be allocated half of the profits earned from the sell. If the city board does not pass this ordinance, the two sides will need to work for an alternate resolution.

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The next regular meeting of the Manchester Board of Mayor and Aldermen is set for 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, Nov. 2 at City Hall.

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