Monday, April 23, 2012

TOP STORY >> Cabot track told to share information with officials

Leader staff writer

The BMX track in Cabot, which got the attention of the city’s elected officials last year because it was supposedly part of the park system but was not open to the public, is now at the center of a controversy over finances.

The problem discussed Tuesday night at the Parks Commission was that no one, except possibly the volunteers who run it, knows how much money is raised from events held at the park or how it is spent.

But the commissioners acknowledged that they had never asked for it before. In fact, Shawn Bassinger currently leases the property and his lease says nothing about financial accountability except that the commission has approval rights over his requests for project funding from the Cabot Advertising and Promotion Commission.

Bassinger built the track on city property with help from the hamburger tax supplied by the A&P. But the city has never had any control over the facility until last year when Mayor Bill Cypert ordered it opened to the public.

Now the park commission says Bassinger must have a franchise agreement similar to the arrangements with the associations that run the ball programs and also give them a financial report on the track each month.

“When you’re dealing with public money, it’s an issue for everybody,” said commission chairman Stephen Tipton.

Ann Gilliam and Ed Long, members of the Cabot City Council who also serve on the Promotions Commission, attended the meeting.

“I’ve had a lot of questions asked me as a member of the city council,” Gilliam said. “There’s lots of tax money gone into that facility. But what has it brought in? Where did it go?”

Bassinger said he will sign the franchise agreement and accept control by the commission. He said the track is an asset to the city and all the money taken in is used to operate it.

“People from all over central Arkansas come here for races and buy food and gas in Cabot,” he said. “All the money we’ve ever made goes right back into the track.”

Work on the track began in January 2009. That was when Bassinger said State Sen. Eddie Joe Williams, the mayor at that time, went with him to the 200-acre site off Willie Ray Drive that was once the city dump and told him, “There you go. Build your track.”

The park is officially called the North Lonoke County Regional Park and it was Williams’ goal to build a park that would live up to that name. But the parks are under the control of the commission, which had different members with little interest in building on a dump site which was also used by the police department as a firing range.

With the help of city equipment, Bassinger built the track and started holding races in August 2009. Williams said at the time that it was a good start toward building the park.
But if it was a park, it was not acknowledged by the parks department and commission.

“No one really knew what to do with us in the beginning,” Bassinger told the commission while explaining the genesis of the track.

Then, in the summer of 2011 residents complained that the gate into the track was locked most of the time. They had no access to the park.

Whether Bassinger wanted it closed to protect the dirt track or the police chief wanted it closed because of the firing range was never clear. But the mayor ordered it opened after city council members said that it must be. Bassinger signed a short document that said he was leasing the track from the city with the stipulation that the park commission had approval rights over requests for Promotions Commission funding.

At that same time, park employees started mowing the track like they do other city parks.
Bassinger told the commission Tuesday that he doesn’t know how much money came in and went out from 2009 to Jan. 1, 2012, but the track bank account has $658.58 now.

The 200 acres has been considered as a site for new ball parks and a water park when funding becomes available. And plans are under now for a mountain bike trail that will be maintained by park employees, not Bassinger’s group.

So it’s possible that the North Lonoke County Regional Park that Williams wanted could be built. In the meantime, Parks Director Larry Tarrant says Bassinger’s efforts to get it started are praiseworthy.

“He’s done a great job out there. It’s been good for the city and it’s something different for the kids to do besides ball,” Tarrant said.