Things to know about the proposed Great Falls park district

Opposition to the proposed park district has reached the 20 percent mark so it may be sent to the ballot in May 2018.

Commissioners must now decide if they want to send the issue to the ballot since it’s currently between the 10 percent and 50 percent thresholds.

State law mandates the election to create a special purpose district must be held on the same day as the regular school election, which is the first Tuesday after the first Monday in May.

We’ve been listening to those questions and have compiled a list of them, along with our own, to also compile answers to go along with them. We’ll keep gathering information and expanding this list with the goal of creating a one stop shop for everything you need to know about the proposed park district. Got a question that’s not on this list yet, send it to jenn@theelectricgf.com and we’ll work to get it answered and then post it on this page.

These answers are compilations of responses from Park and Recreation Interim Director Patty Rearden, Assistant City Attorney Joe City, City Manager Greg Doyon, state law, city documents and public meetings, unless otherwise cited.

Q: What is the park district?

A: A park district is an assessment to pay for the operation and maintenance of city parks. The Park and Recreation Department is proposing a park district that would include the entire city.

Park District assessment considered to support city park system

The funds raised through the park district assessment will be in a separate division within the Park and Recreation budget and will be kept separate from all other funds. The budget has to be approved by the City Commission annually.

There will not be a separate board governing the park district.

Q: How much will this cost me?

A: Under the current city proposal of $2,267,796 annually for the first three years and the assessment would be based on taxable valuable of property in Great Falls. For a property with a $100,000 taxable value, the assessment would be $43.28 annually, or $3.61 per month.

Q: How many properties in Great Falls are in the $100,000 to $199,000 range?

A: About 12,500 properties fall into that market value range within the city limits, including residential, commercial, multifamily and industrial lots. That’s an estimate from the city based on data from the Department of Revenue.

Q: Who sets the rules for establishing a park district?

A: The Montana Legislature. Here’s the section of the Montana Code Annotated dealing with the creation and governance of special districts.

Q: How is a park district established?

A: First, the City Commission holds a public hearing on its intent to create a park district. That happened on June 6. The city sent letters with support/oppose forms to people owning property within the city limits on June 9, starting the 60-day protest period.

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

If more than 50 percent of property owners protest the district, further proceedings may not be taken by the City Commission for 12 months.

If more than 10 percent but less than 50 percent of property owners protest, and the commission decides to proceed, a referendum is required.

If less than 10 percent protest, the commission may move forward with a vote. A public hearing is tentatively scheduled for Aug. 15.

As of July 17, the city had received 4,916 forms and the protests had reached 20 percent. That’s partly because a major company in town returned their form in opposition, according to city staff.

Q: How long does a park district work?

A: The proposed district for Great Falls is a 20-year assessment. The commission would set the assessment rate annually, but Park and Rec has created a 3-year budget plan that would keep the assessment the same for each of those first three years. Rearden said they’d likely do another 3-year plan after that. Creating a district would allow the commission to change the rate annually depending on needs.

Q: How did the city come up with the idea for a park district and was there public input as to what would be included?

A: The option had been considered before and was discussed during last summer’s budget process. The Park and Rec master plan recommended the creation of a park district. That process included four town hall meetings; two initial forums to introduce the project and one to update the community on the survey results and a final briefing to update the community on the draft plan and allow for input on the plan. There were also multiple presentations on the plan at various stages of the project at the Park and Recreation Advisory Board, the Planning Board/Zoning Commission and the City Commission. There were also focus groups and community surveys-one online and one by mail, which was a statistically valid survey. There were numerous media stories about

Q: Who paid for the master plan?

A: The project was $89,970 and no general fund dollars were used. Of the total, $80,000 was funded by the Park and Recreation Trust and the remainder came from the Peoples Park and Recreation Foundation.

Q: When the master plan start and when did the city adopt the plan?

A: The contract was presented to the City Commission in 2015. You can read that staff report here. The commission adopted the plan in November 2016. You can read that staff report and the master plan here. Or you can just read the master plan here.

Q: How does the protest period work?

A: Property owners may register written protests that identify their property either its street address or its legal description, whichever the property owner prefers, be signed by a majority of the owners of that property, and be delivered to the clerk of the governing body, who shall endorse on the protest the date of receipt.

The law also requires that the city send each property owner a protest form with space for property information, mailing instructions, and the date the form must be returned to the governing body.

The city sent forms on June 9, using property ownership information from the Department of Revenue.

Those forms must be signed by a majority of the owners of the property and returned to the city clerk’s office in person in Room 204 in the Civic Center or by mail at City of Great Falls, City Clerk’s Officer, P.O. Box 5021, Great Falls, MT 59403. The forms must be returned by 5 p.m. on Aug. 9.

Q: What happens if I don’t return my form?

A: Per state law, “if it is not returned, the owner’s lack of action must be construed as support of the creation of the special district.” The form must allow a property owner to select either support for or opposition against the creation of the district. But, if an owner does not make a selection of support or opposition and returns the form to the governing body, “it must be construed as a protest of the creation of the special district,” according to the law.

Under the law, owners eligible to file a protest are the record owners of fee simple titles to the property or a contract buyer on file with the county clerk and recorder.

In the last legislative session, a bill was passed changing the protest process to use forms returned with an indication of support or opposition, along with properly submitted written protests, in determining whether sufficient protest has been filed to prevent moving forward with the district.

Q: If I didn’t get a form in the mail, lost it or threw it away, how can I get another one? Is there another way to submit my protest or support?

A: You can pick up forms at the Park and Recreation office, or you can write a letter that includes the address or legal description, names of all property owners, signatures of the majority of property owners, and designated whether in support or opposition.

Q: How are the surveys counted?

A: The City Clerk or her designee enters the information into the spreadsheet.

Q: How many letters were sent by the city?

A: 21,701 forms were mailed.

Q: Why didn’t the city include return postage for the forms?

A: Because it’s not required by state law. Your mail-in ballot for Montana elections doesn’t come with return postage either.

Q: How does the weighted vote work for calculating the responses?

A: The city staffer who handles taxes and assessments, got a total for all taxable values. She divided that total into the total cost of the proposed assessment to get a rate of $0.02518. That rate was used to figure the amount that would be assessed on the property for the park district.

The assessed amount was then divided by the total proposed park district cost to get the weight of the property owner’s vote.

For example:  Taxable Value:  $10,892  times the rate (0.02518) = $274.26 assessment on property.  $274.26 divided by $2,267,794 = 0.00012 percent.

You can use these figures to do the math and find out the assessment for your property using the county’s tax site

Q: Do businesses and governments count as property owners in this process?

A: Any property with a taxable value as assigned by the Department of Revenue will be part of the Park District.  It does include businesses; government organizations are exempt as designated by the State. Letters were sent to all properties with taxable value and those are the properties that may submit the Support/Oppose Form. Legal representatives of businesses are allowed to sign in support or opposition.

Q: I pay a lot in taxes, assessments and fees, is there any relief?

A: Yes. The Montana Department of Revenue has several programs available for those meeting income guidelines, disabled veterans, those affected by fires or natural disasters, and homeowners over 62. Think you qualify or have questions, click on this link.

The reason for the timing of the Proposed Park District was based on the completion of the Park and Recreation Master Plan.  The election had no bearing on the timing.

Q: How many community meetings/groups have city staff attended to discuss the park district?

A: Rearden attended 22 meetings and also discussed the proposal with other groups and individuals. She also did interviews with The Electric, television, radio and newspaper outlets.

Q: Since the law is changing regarding the way unreturned forms are counted, why didn’t the city wait for the law change?

A: City officials had been considering a park district for awhile and the option was discussed during last year’s budget hearings. City officials said the process to create the district was already in the works before they were aware of the law change. The park district was discussed in public meetings since February and the City Commission’s April 4 work session included a presentation on the proposal. The law change was introduced in February and signed by the governor in May.

The reason for the timing of the Proposed Park District was based on the completion of the Park and Recreation Master Plan.  The election had no bearing on the timing, according to Rearden.

Q: How are parks funded?

A: Currently funding for city parks looks like this:

  • Fees: $20,000
  • Trails reimbursement: $57,500
  • Internal service charges: $56,447
  • General fund support-trails: $118,414
  • General fund support-parks: $1,891,290

Here’s the funding for natural resources:

  • General fund support: $256,277
  • Division revenue: $3,518
  • Internal service charges: $21,008

You can find copies of the budget from each of the last few years on the city website.

Q: What’s included in the Great Falls park and recreation department?

A: There are 57 developed parks, 9 undeveloped parks, 775 acres of developed land, 140 acres of undeveloped land, 300 acres of conservation lands, 52 miles of recreational trails-21 miles of which are paved and that does not include trails within parks, 36,000 trees, 25 landscaped medians/islands, 52 buildings/facilities and one compost site.

Q: Can the city sell parks?

A: Yes. The sale requires a 4/5 vote of the commission and the funds go back into the Park Trust to be used for the purchase or development of parks.

Q: Has parkland sale been discussed before?

A: Yes. In 2013 and 2014 the topic came up a few times and some meetings got heated. The last time city parkland was sold was Highland Park Addition in 2009. The Salvation Army had leased the property since 1981 for $1 a year. In 2013, Neighborhood Council 3 voted unanimously that the city should never sell any parkland in the city.

“Parks are difficult to sell because usually, not always, they have to stay designated park land,” said Patty Rearden, interim park and rec director.

Q: How does Great Falls rank when it comes to parks?

A: According to the 2014 County Health Rankings, 72 percent of people in Cascade County live within a half mile of a park – ranking 2nd among 48 peer cities nationwide. That percentage would be even higher, if we considered the miles and miles of the River’s Edge Trail. However, Cascade County ranks 28th for the percentage of people who are physically active.

According to the 2013 Community Health Needs Assessment 40.8 percent of people in Cascade County are overweight and another 23 percent are obese.

Q: Is there an economic benefit to city parks?

A: According to The Trust for Public Lands, yes. The trust has studied this question since 2003 and have found that seven major factors-property value, tourism, direct use, health, community cohesion, clean water and clean air can be measured in relation to parks.

According to the Trust’s report, property values rise based on their proximity to parks and that in turn increases property tax revenue for cities. Parks can also attract tourists bringing additional dollars into a city. Residents can also see direct savings by using city parks and free or low cost recreations instead of having to purchase them in the marketplace, according to the report. Medical costs can also be reduced due to exercise in the parks. There’s also a “community cohesion benefit of people banding together to save and improve their neighborhood parks. This “know-your-neighbor” social capital helps ward off antisocial problems that would otherwise cost the city more in police and fire protection, prisons, counseling, and rehabilitation,” according to the report.

Environmental savings can also be realized through reducing water pollution since trees, bushes and soil in parks can retain rainfall, reducing the cost of treating stormwater. Those same trees and shrubs can also absorb air pollutants, according to the report.

Proximity to parks also plays a role in facilitating higher levels of park use and physical activity levels particularly amongst youth populations, according to a report from the National Recreation and Park Association.

Q: Have other Montana cities approved a park district?

A: Yes. Billings and Missoula have created park districts. Missoula was the first and Billings followed in 2011.