Huge setback for Heartland Park this week in Topeka politics:
The effort to push the city’s acquisition of Heartland Park Topeka to a public vote submitted 4,200 petition signatures Wednesday.http://m.cjonline.com/news/2014-10-08/heartland-park-topeka-petition-drive-collects-4200-signatures
That is more than double the required amount and 1,500 more than the recommended number of signatures. The Shawnee County Election Office suggests petitioners gather at least 25 percent more than the required figure, in case some signatures aren’t valid.
Based on his review, petition organizer Chris Imming estimated at least 3,600 of those were valid, original signatures. He had until Friday to collect 2,132 signatures.
“We kept it open long enough to get as many as we could,” Imming said of the six-week petition effort. “There were people circulating the petition we didn’t know were circulating.”
If the petition is successful, it could jeopardize the city’s plans to take over the racing complex, the racetrack and the bank note, said city attorney Chad Sublet.
The agreement allows CoreFirst to foreclose on the racetrack if the bonds aren’t issued by Feb. 28, 2015. If the issue goes to a public vote, the city could need an extension, he said.
“The petition could jeopardize that,” Sublet said. “It’s hard to say without reviewing the petition.”
The Shawnee County Election Office should be finished validating and tallying the signatures within three days, said assistant election commissioner Mark Stock. After that, he said, the next move is up to the Topeka City Council.
Imming at noon brought to the Topeka city clerk’s office 475 pages of signatures. As of 4:30 p.m., the signatures hadn’t yet made it to the election office.
Imming said about 70 individuals — more than double his original guess — circulated petitions throughout the community. About 80 percent of the signatures came from those efforts, he said.
Common reasons people cited for signing the petition to force a public vote on the issue included wanting more time to understand the issue and a chance to vote on the acquisition publicly, rather than relying on the city council vote, Imming said.
Others indicated they were dissatisfied with prior local government projects and weren’t convinced by projections indicating the city would break even on about $17 million worth of Sales Tax Revenue (STAR) bonds, when the previous projections fell so short, he said.
The city council on June 17 started a process to buy Heartland Park Topeka in an attempt to avoid about $8 million in existing STAR bond debt owed on the property.
The problem developed after the city council voted in 2006 to issue $10.46 million worth of STAR bonds to finance improvements at the complex. Plans called for those to be paid off using sales tax revenue from the track, but Heartland Park’s STAR bond revenues have consistently fallen short, forcing the city to use property tax revenue to make up the difference.
The city’s plan to avoid more of a strain on city taxpayers is to expand the existing redevelopment district around the park by issuing an additional $5 million in STAR bonds. That would allow the city to buy the property free and clear of any debt owed by and the reversionary interest owed to current owner Raymond Irwin.
Acquiring the park without any debt or interest is crucial for the city to meet its objective of selling the property or finding a new manager, city officials have said.
Officials expect the expanded district to generate just enough revenue to pay off the $17 million in STAR bonds during the next 12 years.
The petition drive could throw a wrench in those plans, depending on how long it delays the process.
The agreement approved by the city council requires the bonds to be issued by Feb. 28, 2015. If the bonds aren’t issued by that time, CoreFirst can foreclose on the racetrack — as early as March 1, 2015.
In that event, Irwin still would owe the bank, the Small Business Association and the Department of Commerce about $3 million.
The city, consequently, would be on the hook for $8 million in outstanding STAR bond debt, Sublet said.
Given pending approvals and election timelines, the Feb. 28 date isn’t looking promising.
As a general rule, the election office requires 120 days’ notice to organize a vote. From October, that would be February.
The next election could be the Topeka City Council primary on March 3, if one is needed. The general election is set for April 7.
And pending a vote, the Kansas Department of Commerce will stop its work on approving the bond, said Dan Lara, deputy secretary for public affairs with the agency. The department already has approved all but one step of the process: Setting the interest rate.
“There is no point in approving interest rates on the bonds now because if the vote doesn’t take place, say, until April, the rates would fluctuate greatly between now and then,” Lara said.
Setting the interest rate is “the point of no return,” he said, because it commits the state to the project regardless of which administration is in charge. A general election that could change the administration is less than one month away.
Finally, the bond process alone takes 30 to 45 days, Sublet said.
If the elections office finds the petition has enough votes, Sublet said, the city council will have to review its options — one likely being amending the agreement to give the city time to schedule and hold a vote.
“We’ll just have to get all the parties together and see where to go from there,” Sublet said. “I have no idea what that would look like, to be honest.”