It’s been an unsettling few months for equestrians and boarders at Westwind Community Barn, who anxiously await the Los Altos Hills City Council’s decision on the future of the barn’s management.
After the resignation of the barn’s Year-Round Riding Program director in June, the facility needs new leadership and a more sustainable operations plan. The council conducted a four-hour study session Oct. 24 and was scheduled to render a decision on the future direction of Westwind at Tuesday’s council meeting, after the Town Crier’s press deadline.
The council last summer issued a call for proposals from independent concessionaires interested in assuming control of the barn from the town. By the application deadline, only two concessionaires submitted proposals, both of which required subsidies to operate – $68,550 in the first year of operations from one applicant and $178,300 from the other.
The prospect of contracting with either concessionaire made some councilmembers uneasy and prompted town staff to recommend a model that would end horse-boarding operations but continue community programs via a vendor that would provide services and horses for the Year-Round Riding Program and the Pacific Ridge Pony Club.
“The town did a fabulous job with the restoration. However, they’ve done a fairly poor job managing the barn,” said Val Metcalfe, a member of the West- wind Barn Task Force.
For the 2012-2013 budget year, the town subsidized Westwind to the tune of $154,000, 54 percent more than the $100,000 budget cap recommended by the Finance and Investment Committee.
“We like the idea of parks and recreation programming, and nobody wants to see (Westwind Barn) go away, but nobody wants to spend $200,000 as well,” Mayor Gary Waldeck told the Town Crier after the study session.
So the challenge remains: How does Los Altos Hills maintain the Westwind Community Barn programs it deems important, such as 4-H Riding for the Handicapped and the Pacific Ridge Pony Club, while reducing public funds needed to meet operating expenses?
The council discussed three possible solutions during the study session: (1) a model that continues operations as is, (2) a community equestrian facility model that eliminates boarding or (3) a concessionaire model that requires a $100,000 to $200,000 subsidy.
Because of its lower short- and long-term financial risk, town staff recommended adopting option (2), the community equestrian facility model.
Metcalfe objected to the plan, claiming that no longer boarding horses at the barn would be “disastrous,” draining not only “synergy and good will,” but also hampering a viable pathway for eventual barn recovery.
Instead, Metcalfe encouraged councilmembers to reconsider option (3), the subsidized concessionaire model. With cost-cutting measures, she said, vendors might work cooperatively with the town to reduce subsidies.
Opinions remain mixed about the best approach for ensuring the barn’s future.
“This is a lot like a Rubik’s Cube, but with 10 sides,” Waldeck said. “By the time you get all these ‘buts’ in here, you don’t have a bucket, you have a tubful.”
A town ordinance requiring full-time supervision at any commercial stable in Los Altos Hills adds extra expense to options (1) and (3). Waldeck noted that the council would review the proposals on the table as well as others that could mitigate the town’s financial burden.
Rather than allocating approximately $140,000 annually for two paid attendants, for example, Waldeck said the town could install security cameras and other cost-cutting technology.
Metcalfe added that there are ways to slash expenses so that a concessionaire model is viable. Buying hay and feed in bulk during off-peak seasons and storing it in the barn’s attic, for example, could enable vendors to reduce subsidies.
Waldeck said the council is employing a “thorough” and “thoughtful” process in making a management decision for the barn. Even so, he allowed, some stakeholders may not be satisfied with the outcome.
“Not everybody agrees,” he said. “If everybody agrees, it’s probably not the right response.”