Park district proposal moving forward, 60-day protest period starts now

City Commissioners voted 4-0 to approve a resolution of intent to create Great Falls’ first city-wide park district.

Now the 60-day protest period begins and letters will be mailed June 9 to all property owners in the district boundary, which encompasses the entire city of Great Falls.

If the form is not returned, “the owner’s lack of action will be considered as support of the creation of the special district.” That line is bolded in the letter sent to property owners and is guided by state law.

The proposal is for a 20-year park district for $2,267,796 annually for the first three years and the assessment would be based on taxable value. For a property with a $100,000 taxable value, the assessment would be $43.28 annually, or $3. 61 per month.

City Commission agenda includes multiple controversial items

Commissioners will set the assessment amount annually. The amount could increase or decrease or commissioners could terminate the district earlier. The amount is proposed at $2.2 million for each of the first three years and city staff said that each year there will be a public hearing and vote to set the amount, just as commissioners do with other city assessments, such as the streets assessment.

Several people spoke in opposition to the park district, citing rising taxes, fees and costs of living.

One resident said she supported the creation of a park district, but would like to see the amount decreased.

Ron Gessaman, a regular meeting goer, said he would prefer to see the matter put to a public vote.

More people spoke in favor of the park district saying parks are critical to the community and their contribution to the overall health of the city.

Kim Dunlap said she understands the tax fatigue other residents spoke about, but said there should be a place for people to go and support active lifestyles.

“We raise our kids in the parks,” she said.

Kim Skornogoski, marketing director for United Way of Cascade County and president of Get Fit Great Falls, said the parks support active lifestyles and reducing health care costs by reducing obesity.

“Parks are vital to the work that we do,” she said.

Commissioner Fred Burow said he’d “love to see it go to a vote of the people,” but also acknowledged “if we don’t start doing something with our parks, we’re going to start losing them.”

Burow said perhaps the city should consider selling underused or undeveloped parkland throughout the city.

Commissioner Bob Jones said that the public will have time to make their thoughts known during the 60-day protest period.

“Parks are one of the biggest parts of our community,” Jones said.

The city conducted a master plan, for $90,000 and funded by the Peoples Park Foundation, and “this is what you do when you try to activate a plan,” he said.

The Park and Rec master plan identified $12 million in deferred maintenance and recommended completion of those projects within 1-5 years. The plan also recommends 39 full-time employees. The department currently has 23.5 full timers and the plan recommends the addition of 12 positions within the next three years.

If more than 50 percent of property owners protest the creation of the district, the proposal is dead in the water. If between 10 and 50 percent of property owners protest, the commissioners can do nothing or the proposal must go to a referendum. If less than 10 percent protest, commissioners can move forward with creating the district by resolution.