Options considered for park district include lower assessment rate, flat fee

Discussions of the proposed park district are continuing for the City Commission and a special work session will likely be scheduled in the near future to work through more of the details.

During the Jan. 2 work session, Steve Herrig, who started as Park and Recreation Director in November, presented some additional options to commissioners related to assessment rates.

Initially, city staff proposed a $2.3 million assessment that would be based on taxable value of properties within the city. That funding would help the department catch up on $12 million worth of deferred maintenance, staff say, then move into bigger projects like the possible combined indoor pool/recreation center facility to replace the aging Natatorium and current rec center. That idea has been tossed around for at least the last few years, but will take funding for feasibility studies, plans and, of course, actual construction.

That would equate to an annual assessment of $34.66 on a $100,000 property.

Park District assessment considered to support city park system

After the initial pitch of the park district and community response, commissioners and City Manager Greg Doyon asked staff for other options that commissioners could consider.

“We don’t need to decide everything tonight,” Doyon said during the work session, but said that staff needed direction on whether commissioners wanted to continue discussion. None of the five commissioners objected.

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

The options Herrig presented Tuesday include a lower $1.5 million annual assessment, which would be $22.92 annually on a $100,000 property.

Another option is a flat rate for different categories of properties based on land use types in the city code.

For the $2.3 million assessment, the flat rate would be:

  • $7,220 for large commercial properties, which would include Calumet, Malteurope, BNSF, Energy West, United Materials and others. There are 29 properties in the city that fall into this category.
  • $722 for standard commercial properties, which would include many of the city’s hotels, condos, shopping centers, the Great Falls Rescue Mission, Great Falls Public Schools and Cascade County, among others. There are 1,843 properties in this category.
  • $360 for small commercial, which would include daycare centers and others. There are 415 properties in this category.
  • $29 for residential properties, of which there are 19,854 in the city limits, according to city data.

If the flat rate was applied to the $1.5 million assessment, the annual rates would be:

  • $4,750 for the large commercial properties;
  • $475 for the standard commercial;
  • $237 for the small commercial;
  • and $20 for the residential properties.

The flat rate method hasn’t been used in Great Falls to Doyon’s knowledge, but state law allows the city some flexibility in the methodology for determining the assessment. Billings and Missoula use the taxable value method.

Things to know about the proposed Great Falls park district

Commissioner Tracy Houck said the city should do more community education on what will happen is we don’t fund park and rec.

“Even if they’re not using a park, it impacts their community,” Houck said.

Commissioner Bill Bronson said he’s fine with the conversation, but he’s not sure he’s ready to send it to the ballot.

He said he’s hearing feedback from the community members who supported the schools levy, but are now concerned about the cost after seeing their tax bills. The reaction to the economic development levy was negative, in part because voters didn’t know how the funds would be used.

Great Falls tax levy approved, commissioners direct staff to move forward with sending park district to May ballot

Park and Rec laid out their budget for the asessment funds last year in multiple public meetings, and an updated version during Tuesday’s work session. Bronson said that’s helpful, but “I don’t know if that’s enough. It’s a harder sell for the public.”

He said the city is asking for defeat if there isn’t an independent local group willing to raise the funds needed to advocate for the park district, similar to the group that supported the education levy.

Commissioner Mary Sheehy Moe, in her first meeting as commissioner, said she sees the aging and failing park and rec facilities as a liability issue for ADA compliance and safety for children.

Commissioner Owen Robinson, also in his first meeting, said it’s important to take the next step and that he can’t imagine having the master plan and then not move forward with it.

He said he didn’t realize that commissioners can’t advocate for the park district, though the city attorney’s office indicated that they can as individuals but not on city time using city resources.

Park district back on agenda for first commission meeting of new year

Robinson said he thought the flat fee might backfire since people with $50,000 homes would pay the same assessment as someone with a $400,000 house.

Mayor Bob Kelly said the community funded the master plan process and that he supports asking the community if they’d support the park district assessment.

“I’m not afraid of a no answer, but I’m hopeful for a yes answer,” he said.

Some of the city parks are in poor shape and “deferred maintenance doesn’t go away,” Kelly said. “It’s time to either spend money or cut.”

State law requires that protest forms be sent to anyone who owns property within the city limits and if less than 10 percent are returned in opposition to the park district, the commission may proceed with voting on the proposal as they would with other public hearing items. If more than 10 percent are returned in opposition, but less than 50 percent, commissioners have the option to send the question to the ballot.

Last summer, the returned protest forms in opposition reached 21.6 percent. About half of that opposition came from one company with a high taxable value.

Now commissioners have the option of sending the park district to the May 8 ballot, which will also include school district elections. Park districts must be on the school election ballot under state law.

The state statute also requires that the ballot language read: “Shall the proposition to organize (name of proposed special district) be adopted?”

Under state law, all eligible voters could vote on the park district, but so can property owners who live out of town, but is a registered voter in Montana.

Assistant City Attorney Joe Cik said he didn’t know how that provision of state law would work in practicality if the park district is sent to the ballot. The Electric is continuing to look into how that aspect of the election would be handled.

Without the park district, deferred maintenance issues would continue with reduced services including: delayed ADA improvements; eventual loss of trail system in parks; eventual loss of use of sport and tennis courts; future loss of picnic shelters and tables; decline in playground inventory; increased labor costs without irrigation upgrades; potential failure of irrigation systems in some parks; tree trimming will remain on delayed schedule; and water park bathhouse improvements delayed.

The park district assessment rate must be set by commissioners annually with public hearings. Commissioners could also decide to dissolve the district once the need has been met.

The project that would be tackled in the first few years are those needed most, those that will have the most visible impact quickly and were identified in the park and rec master plan that commissioners adopted in 2016.

That study cost about $90,000, most of which was funded by private foundations and the some funding from the park trust.

On Tuesday, Herrig told commission that with the $1.5 million assessment, the projects for the first year would include:

  • Lions Park restroom ADA improvements: $200,000
  • Electric City Water Park bath house improvements: $300,000
  • Gibson Park Trail overlay with asphalt: $100,000
  • sports courts resurface for pickleball/basketball at Jaycee Park: $120,000
  • ADA sidewalks to play structures: $30,000
  • irrigation upgrades (manual to automatic): $220,000
  • turf maintenance (fertilizer/herbicides, two seasonal laborers): $80,000
  • full-time parks laborer: $63,000
  • Multi Sports dugouts/backstop: $35,000
  • picnic pavilion, tables at Jaycee Park: $64,000
  • River’s Edge Trail matching funds: $10,000
  • contingency/operations/professional services: $250,00

The projects proposed for year two are:

  • Gibson Park restroom ADA improvements: $250,000
  • Elks Riverside Trail replacement with concrete: $308,000
  • tree replacement: $10,000
  • River’s Edge Trail matching funds: $10,000
  • forestry equipment/tree trimming: $259,000
  • forestry staff and operations: $171,600
  • irrigation upgrades: $70,000
  • turf maintenance: $80,000
  • full-time parks laborer: $63,000
  • contingency/operations/professional services: $250,000

The projects proposed for year three are:

  • Oddfellows Park restroom ADA improvements: $200,000
  • Gibson Park pond wall: $165,000
  • Grande Vista trail replacement, asphalt: $96,000
  • resurface basketball courts: $75,000
  • ADA sidewalks to play structures: $50,000
  • tree replacement: $10,000
  • Multi Sports dugouts/backstop: $35,000
  • River’s Edge Trail matching funds: $10,000
  • irrigation upgrades: $250,000
  • turf maintenance: $80,000
  • full-time parks laborer: $63,000
  • forestry staff and operations: $171,600
  • contingency/operations/professional services: $260,000

Additional items Park and Rec would fund if the assessment was $2.3 million:

  • picnic shelters/tables at North Kiwanis and Meadowlark parks: $64,000 in each year two and three;
  • resurface additional basketball courts: $140,000 in year two;
  • park equipment/play structures: $60,000 year one;
  • replace Gibson Park trails with concrete: $415,000 in year three;
  • additional irrigation: $80,000 in year one, another $130,000 in year two and another $50,000 in year three;
  • Water Tower/Jaycee Pools minor improvements: $21,600 in year one
  • additional matching funds for River’s Edge Trail: $190,000 in year one, two and three;
  • on-street trail connections to River’s Edge Trail: $50,000 for year one, two and three;
  • additional tree replacement: $10,000 in year one;
  • potential general fund support reduction: $200,000 in year one, two and three;
  • contingency/operations/professional services: $50,000 in year one, two and three