By SHELLY WILKISON
The Liberty Hill Development Foundation said this week that the possible transfer of ownership of Lions Foundation Park to the City of Liberty Hill is “on hold.”
The announcement was made in response to an email from City Administrator Greg Boatright that effective May 1 the City would stop mowing and caring for the privately-owned park.
“We are at a point where we need to focus our resources on our own facilities to make them the best that they can be,” wrote City Administrator Greg Boatright in an email to Foundation Board President Larry Nicholson.
The email was provided to The Independent along with a response from Nicholson. While Boatright responded to follow-up questions from the newspaper, Nicholson had not responded to follow-up questions or a request for an interview by press time Wednesday night.
“The City has incurred the expense of mowing and maintaining the park for the last three years,” Boatright wrote to Nicholson. “This was to help the volunteers and relieve them of the huge task of maintaining the park. The City was also interested in showing a good faith effort of being able to maintain the park in such a way that the Board would feel confident turning over the park at some point to the City.”
For one and one-half years, the Development Foundation has been in talks with city officials about the possible transfer of ownership of the park to the City. However, the Foundation’s interest in the negotiating process came to a standstill in recent months as the group agreed to focus its energy instead on developing a final plan for a sculpture garden inside the 19-acre park on Loop 332.
Development of a sculpture garden inside the park has been a shared goal of the Foundation Board and the City throughout discussions on future park ownership. The two entities want the sculptures created during the 1976 Liberty Hill International Sculpture Symposium to be a central focus of the park bringing artists and tourists to the city.
In September 2015, the City Council adopted a budget that included $100,000 from the Economic Development Corp., which was to be spent on development of the sculpture garden, including appraisal of the sculptures for insurance purposes, and cleaning and moving the artwork from the campus of Liberty Hill Intermediate School to the adjacent park. So far, the EDC has spent just under $10,000 of those funds on the sculpture appraisal.
In fiscal 2015, the EDC spent $23,638 on a website for the sculpture garden — www.lhsculptures.com — and consulting on the garden design. Consultant Pix Howell was retained to provide those services.
Boatright told The Independent Wednesday that Howell’s park design was based on an original request from the school district to relocate all of the sculptures from the school to the Foundation Park. The Foundation Board agreed on two acres for the sculpture garden and the designer developed a plan to accommodate all of the artwork onto two acres.
After the design was complete, Boatright said the school “changed its mind and wanted to keep some of the sculptures.” He said at that point the EDC funds allocated for that design project had been expended.
“I felt like they (the Foundation Board) didn’t use the information we gathered and the Board changed directions. So the layout changed and the mindset of the Board changed as well,” Boatright said.
After the Howell design became obsolete, the Foundation Board looked to a volunteer to do a new design, which has not been completed. The Board also discussed the desire to have more than two acres for the sculpture garden and a building that would serve as a museum for the 1976 event as well as a classroom or work area for artists.
Boatright said the change in the amount of land requested to be set aside for the sculpture garden was also a source of frustration on the City’s part.
“I don’t know why they needed more than two acres, since two acres was going to suffice at that time (when all the sculptures were to be housed there),” Boatright said, adding that he agreed to the Foundation’s goal of expanding the number of sculptures in the future.
“We were on a fast track to giving the Park to the City, but as you (Boatright) know several unanticipated items came up that need to be resolved,” Nicholson wrote Tuesday in his response to Boatright.
“After exploration of ways to expand and access the Sculpture Garden, we became aware that the only way to assure its future development was to retain a certain portion of the Park grounds. The size of the needed area has not been determined,” Nicholson explained. “We are also working to acquire grants for the continued expansion and upgrading of the sculpture garden. This is a role you (Boatright) envisioned for us and the City.”
At most every turn, some members of the EDC — former and current — have expressed concern and even opposed allocating public funds for the sculpture garden development in advance of the transfer of park ownership. In each public meeting, Boatright encouraged the appointed EDC members to stay the course as he believed both parties were negotiating in good faith toward that end.
As recently as a strategic planning meeting with the City Council and EDC members on Feb. 29, Boatright said it was in the City’s interest to be patient with the Foundation Board. The same night, however, Boatright attended a Foundation Board meeting, but the item was not on the agenda and he was not asked to speak.
He said after three months of no action on the part of the Foundation Board, “it reached a point where we (the City) need to turn our attention to other things.”
Six months earlier the City developed a proposed contract for the transfer of ownership that items that had previously been agreed to by both entities. Boatright said the Foundation Board never officially agreed to the proposal.
Boatright said Mayor Connie Fuller agreed with the decision this week to stop the park maintenance. He said the EDC Board is also supportive, and he expects the EDC Board at its next regular meeting to consider rescinding the appropriation of funds ($90,000) in the current budget for the sculpture endeavor.
In his email to Boatright, Nicholson wrote “there was never a satisfactory explanation of how the City was going to release the money, and after making the vendor wait for a month for payment for the appraisal, we are concerned.”
Boatright said the City of Liberty Hill and all governments have systems in place when it comes to expending funds. He said the City reimburses from receipts or pays vendors directly after receiving multiple proposals for work to be done.
He said the process was explained to a representative of the Foundation Board who came to the EDC Board in 2015 and requested the funds. The EDC Board voted to approve the Foundation’s request for the $100,000 allocation.
Assistant City Administrator Amber Lewis said it is not uncommon for bills to be paid in 30 days.
“Most accounts are considered current if paid within 30 days,” she said.
Specifically, Lewis addressed the timeliness of the payment to the appraiser, Suzanne Staley of Houston.
“The Foundation could have paid this bill immediately and asked EDC for reimbursement, but they chose not to do that,” said Lewis. “The EDC wasn’t going to pay the bill until the appraisal was completed and in hand and until they were able to take official action,” she continued.
She said the appraiser submitted the invoice to the Foundation Board around Dec. 3, 2015, and the EDC gave the required approval at its Dec. 17 meeting. Lewis, who is responsible for making such payments, said she received the bill Dec. 21 and was out sick for several days. The check was cut on Dec. 29, and it was delivered by overnight mail to the appraiser, she said.
In response to an Open Records Request from The Independent, Lewis said the City and its EDC have spent a combined $69,417 on the private park since 2012. Lewis said that figure did not include the time staff had spent overseeing the maintenance at the park, nor the legal fees associated with drafting the contract for transfer of ownership of the park.
“Last fiscal year, we spent over $22,000 just on landscaping for Foundation Park alone,” Lewis said, adding that the figure was part of the overall total. “I wanted to point out that we have recently increased our spending on Foundation (Park) substantially. We have a contract with Giraffe Landscaping that performs the landscaping for the park.”
In response to the City’s news this week, Nicholson said the City’s decision to stop maintenance on the park effective May 1 “puts the possible transfer of the park on hold.”
“The Foundation greatly appreciates the City’s help with the upkeep of Foundation Park and are sorry to know that the City cannot continue to help,” Nicholson wrote. “As you know the Park was founded to provide free services to the citizens of Liberty Hill when there was no park in Liberty Hill. We will continue to do this to the best of our abilities especially since there is no comparable city facility.
“It should be noted that we viewed the City’s assistance as a win-win situation; the Park received needed assistance with maintenance and the citizens received the use of the park facilities,” he continued. “I certainly feel that the taxpayer received good value for their investment in the Park. However, if the City no longer feels satisfied with the return on their investment in the Park, we respect their decision.”
With 2016 being the 40th anniversary of the sculpture symposium, the Foundation Board agreed earlier this month to work with volunteer Susan Barnes, an art teacher at Liberty Hill Intermediate School, to organize a commemorative event that may include bringing sculptors to Liberty Hill to create more art pieces.
“We are now working together to make this a success and create new works for the Garden,” Nicholson write.
“I hate that it’s happened, that we weren’t able to finalize an agreement,” Boatright said. “But we have the park on CR 200 and the new park on CR 279 that we are going to develop with funds we have coming in.”
Although the conversations about the City’s role in the future of the park may have stopped for now, Nicholson and Boatright didn’t close the door permanently on the issue.
“We hope that at some point in the future we will be able to reach an agreement that will be fair to all parties and of benefit to the citizens of Liberty Hill,” Nicholson stated. “Like you, the Foundation still thinks that at some point it will be time for the City to own the Park, but to do our fiduciary duty, we must be sure the time is right.”
“What happens next is up to them (Foundation Board),” he said. “I know there are hard feelings on each side, but I feel like we did everything they requested of us, including taking care of the long-term lease with the library and the (Liberty Hill) Youth League, setting aside two acres of land and having them retain ownership of the sculptures.
“I can’t keep spending city resources on something that doesn’t feel like we’re getting any cooperation from the Foundation Board,” Boatright said.