Back in July, Burlington city staff posted a poll on Facebook to gauge what riverfront improvements people want to see when the Mississippi River flood wall is finished.
The top three picks were shaded seating with 11.8 percent of votes, amphitheater seating with 29 percent of votes and a splash pad with 52.3 percent of votes. A little more than 1,000 people voted.
Next Monday, as part of an ongoing grant process, the City Council needs to figure out which of the three the city should apply for this year. Burlington can apply for any combination of the three.
The council would need to put up a local match of about 20 percent of the cost for whatever projects it chooses. A splash pad would require a $50,000 match, shaded structures would need $25,000 and the amphitheater would need $41,000.
At its latest work session, the council chose both forms of seating, at a combined upfront cost of $66,000. They're free to change their minds at their vote next week, but for now they appear to be ruling out the most-requested option, a splash pad.
Council members are afraid of long term costs. Mayor Shane McCampbell said he fears members of the public don't realize what long-term costs might arise from the wet attraction.
"Using forward thinking, that's going to cost money, and it's going to get more expensive as years go by," McCampbell said. "It's something people need to think about. Everything else is going up. People say everything's going up but my wages. Splash pads are going to go up to. We've got pools. I've got a splash pad at my house. It's hooked up to a hose."
The other two options, comparatively, are more of a one-and-done cost. Once built, seating doesn't require much of an ongoing budget.
The whole grant process is being managed by City Planner Charlie Nichols. He thinks public perception is dulling the council's willingness to put another quality of life improvement on the budget.
"I think it's seen as a frivolous expense when there's other things to work on, like public safety," Nichols said. "But leveraging our money to get more money can improve quality of life."
Splash pads were included early on in tentative flood wall plans as a spiritual replacement for the riverfront fountain. The fountain has already been destroyed and removed for flood wall work.
In Fort Dodge, one of Burlington's official comparison cities, Oleson Park's splash pad was installed to replace and update an old wading pool.
Their splash pad has a budget of about $22,000 annually, according to Fort Dodge's Parks, Recreation and Forestry Director Lori Branderhorst. Most of that is spent on maintenance.
"It's been very successful," Branderhorst said. "In the right area, it's a nice alternative to other aquatic features."
With one look at that $22,000 figure, it appears Burlington leaders are right to fear future costs. But not all splash pads are created equal.
Leo Foley, the Veenstra and Kimm engineer managing Burlington's flood wall project, previously presented information on the water feature to the council.
Wednesday, Foley could only say that "pads with recirculating pumps and filters are much more expensive than the types without pumps and filters."
Foley doesn't have hard numbers on the cheaper option, but Fort Dodge's is the more expensive. They have a holding tank of water that is treated and recirculating water. The way the law is written, Branderhorst said, water must be chemically treated if is recirculated and used again. If water is allowed to simply re-enter the city's gutters, it doesn't need all the special pampering.
Nichols said the estimated annual cost moving forward for the proposed Burlington splash pad is $2,000.
If correct, that's significantly lower than costs to run the fountain. The old fountain by the waterfront cost around $15,000 a year to maintain and use, back when it was in use. It was built to shoot water in sync with music and changing colors. The parts were expensive, and repairs were a headache.
If the council members go for any of the options, they'll have to find the money in their upcoming budgeting season. Whatever they choose next week does not lock them in on actually spending the money.