By Timothy Cox
If city residents want to use the new tennis courts being built at Celina High School, they will have to do so when the school tennis teams aren't using them and while the sun is still shining.
Plans for Celina City Council to donate $40,000 toward lighting the five courts fell through at Monday's council meeting amid fears the state auditor's office would question the city's payment plan. City officials were willing to make the donation if it came from the city's electric department but not if it must come from general fund tax dollars.
Even though most council members said they support the donation, the issue died without a vote over fears auditors would not allow the money to be paid from the city electric fund.
Councilman Collin Bryan ripped state officials for their refusal to grant a formal opinion on the matter. State auditors office representatives have given only general advice on the issue. "It's an absolute crime," Bryan said.
"You have to do it first, then they tell you you're wrong," Auditor Pat Smith said. The lack of lights at the courts -- which are being built through a private fund-raising effort -- will not affect the high school tennis teams. The tennis squads play and practice during daylight hours; the lights would have simply benefited the public. The school district had agreed to assume maintenance responsibilities of the lights and had agreed to pay for the electricity to run them.
Safety-Service Director Jeff Hazel said state auditor's office officials have indicated it would be allowable to donate the lights if they were paid with tax dollars. To pay for the donation with electric money, the project should directly benefit or promote the electric utility, Hazel said he was told.
If city officials had made the donation from the electric fund and been later cited by the auditor's office, the money would have to be repaid from general fund tax money. City officials cannot justify the expense from the cash-strapped general fund, especially since they likely will ask voters this fall to approve a new tax levy.
Although some volunteers who helped raise money to build the courts are upset with the city's decision, school administrators understand the issue, councilman June Scott said. As public officials, school administrators understand some of the perils and pitfalls of public finance, he said.
The light project might not totally die. It was suggested the project could be revisited in the future or scaled back to only light one or two of the five tennis courts.