County approves emergency funding to replace bulbs at Ford Fields, one commissioner claims management ‘playing games’
Jefferson County Commissioners approved $35,914 in emergency Hotel Occupancy Tax (HOT) grant funding to replace bulbs and ballasts at the Ford Park baseball fields at a meeting of the court Monday, Aug. 18.
According to the Texas Comptroller of Public Accounts website, HOT is imposed on the rental of a room or space in a hotel costing $15 or more each day. The tax applies not only to hotels and motels, but also to bed and breakfasts, condominiums, apartments and houses. The hotel occupancy tax rate is 6 percent of the cost of a room. Ford Park General Manager John Hughes said that during a count of bulbs and ballasts at Ford Fields in May for a July budget report to the county, there were a total of 38 that were out, which he said was not a significant number at the time, as far as safety was concerned.
“We were trying to wait for that repair to begin in the new fiscal year so that the county could budget it during the fiscal year,” Hughes told The Examiner. However, Hughes said that due to a numerous amount of evening tournament games and bad weather between May and late July, the total number of bulbs that are currently out has increased to 86 out of 180.
“These lights literally went out within a 60-day window of time. Team counts are at an all time high,” he said. “With increased usage comes increased expense. You are going to have more wear and tear on the facility. That facility is … now 12 years old.”
The number of bulbs currently out equates to a loss of about 50 percent of the total lighting at Ford Fields.
“There were starting to be some safety concerns at that last tournament (in July),” Hughes said. “They actually had to move some games from fields where the lights were going out during the middle of the game. It was the umpire’s call, and it was a safety call.”
Although there no August games at Ford Fields, Beaumont Convention and Visitors Bureau Executive Director Dean Conwell said that two tournaments scheduled for the first two weeks of September left Hughes with no choice but to bring the issue to the court before the new fiscal year, seemingly putting the CVB and commissioners in a tough situation.
“There should be dollars in the Ford Park budget for repairs to the facilities,” Conwell said. “Apparently dollars have not been set aside. Hughes had no choice but to ask for additional dollars. Tournaments in early September … will bring in a total of over 200 teams and … over 5,000 people coming to Beaumont to spend their money in our restaurants, hotels, shopping areas and attractions. Visitor spending over these two weekends will be nearly $1,836,000.”
The CVB and commissioners had a choice to make. Conwell said, “Do we cancel the event, or welcome 5,000 visitors to our city that are ready to experience Southeast Texas hospitality and spend their money here in Jefferson County?”
Hughes said the Jefferson County Tourism Committee unanimously approved the use of emergency HOT funds to address the situation. Although the choice seemed obvious to Conwell and a majority of the commissioners, with Hughes pointing out that $35,914 on repairs is a pretty good investment on two weekends alone that will return almost $2 million, Commissioner “Bo” Alfred, whose Pct. 4 includes Ford Park, voted against approving the emergency allocation rant funding to Ford Park, arguing that the issue was not handled properly.
“You can’t tell me that 50 percent of the lights in the ball field went out in a two-week period of time,” Alfred told the Examiner. “My question is, ‘Does (SMG) have a maintenance policy in place?’ They should have been working on those things as they were going out. When you are at 50 percent, you are making our product look bad. It’s harder for the kids to see and play. You are not giving us the best (product) for the people that use our facility.”
Hughes said, however, that regular maintenance of these bulbs is not practical until a certain number are out.
“We can’t do assessment of that until the last tournament finished. We can’t do repairs when we are having tournaments every weekend. It is a significant expense and very time consuming to change out bulbs. When one bulb goes out, you just don’t go up and change it. These aren’t bulbs at your house,” Hughes said. “These are bulbs that are 60 feet up in the air. The lift itself to change out a bulb is about $1,200 a day. So you’re not going to go out and change one light bulb and spend $1,200 on a lift. You want to have a certain amount of these go out before you … do the repair.”
Hughes said as far as the life of the bulb, the manufacturer expects 7-10 years, depending on average usage.
Alfred said this isn’t the first time Ford Park Management has brought problems to the court at the last minute and utilized the emergency HOT to resolve them.
“If you look … over the past five years, we have given them extra at the end of the year for capital projects and things. HOT funds during that time were $1.2 million. Where is all this money going?” Alfred asked. “I’m up to my ears in people playing games. Everything is an emergency. I’m watching, and I think everybody else will be watching.”
The heat between Alfred and Hughes could be seen and felt at the Aug. 18 court meeting.
“I think that we have been very reluctant to say anything, but now is the time for you guys to start managing that facility and looking at everything out there because we will start bringing you before court and make you justify everything from now on,” Alfred told Hughes. “I want to make sure I put you on notice because the truth in the pudding is we owe the taxpayers the respect to make sure this company manages the facility like it should.”
“I want to make one thing clear, commissioner: You don’t give SMG money, you give money to the facility for the operation of the facility,” Hughes responded.
“SMG is the company you work for, right?” Alfred asked. “That’s the company that gave us a plan that they would manage the facility?”
“That’s correct,” Hughes responded.
“Well that’s the company that is receiving the money,” said Alfred.
“The money that goes towards repairs does not go to SMG,” Hughes interjected.
“I said management and management means the maintenance of the facility and making sure you bring it to our attention at an appropriate time. If you come into HOT tax and get funding for things at different times and you’re not bringing us everything, then that is a management problem,” Alfred said.
Hughes pointed out that HOT is not taxpayer dollars.
“It’s not part of the normal county budget,” he said. “That is what the HOT tax is there for. It is generated by hotel room nights and by people staying in hotels. Those fields are the largest tourism driver for hotel rooms in the county. Last year over 10,000 hotel nights were generated by ball tournaments that came into town. That’s exactly what those funds are for.”
Hughes said he expects the light and ballast replacements to be completed prior to the upcoming Stars over Texas Softball college exposure tournament at Ford Fields Sept. 5-7.