Park district is on track to go to May 8 ballot for $1.5 million assessment

The proposed park district will be on the Jan. 16 City Commission agenda for a first meeting and to set a public hearing for Feb. 6.

That meets the deadlines set under state law to put the park district on the May 8 ballot.

During a special work session Monday morning, commissioners discussed the mechanics of how the assessment process works and the details of the projects proposed to be funded by the assessment.

Commissioners determined that they want to move forward with a proposed $1.5 million assessment for the initial years and use the taxable value method, which equates to $22.92 annually on a $100,000 property. The assessment amount is based on taxable values established by the Montana Department of Revenue.

With the $1.5 million assessment, it will take the city more than five years to get through the deferred maintenance, but “it will be a good start,” said Steve Herrig, the new park and rec director.

Last week, city staff had reviewed options for the assessment methodology and commissioners decided they needed more time to discuss.

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

Herrig told commissioners they could use a taxable value method, flat rate method or some combination of the two.

In continued staff discussions, staff determined that very few businesses would pay anything close to the flat rate under the taxable value method.

The flat rate assessment for large businesses to generate $2.3 million annually would be $7,220, and under the $1.5 million assessment it would be $4,750. Herrig said very few businesses would pay that much under the taxable value method and staff felt that would be unfair for business owners.

Commissioner Tracy Houck asked if they could use the taxable value method for the commercial properties and the flat rate method for residential, but staff said that would create complicated financial formulas and the city attorney’s office had concerns about the potential for discrimination challenges by creating two different groups and treating them differently, said Joe Cik, assistant city attorney.

“There’s never a great time to ask tax payers for money,” said Greg Doyon, and the rule is not to ask unless it’s really needed.

Doyon said the city wants to address the more than $12 million in deferred maintenance and relieve pressure on the general fund. That could also help use the general fund to address other areas like public safety, Doyon said. If the park district isn’t adopted, the city will have to look at other operating models that could require reduced service levels, he said.

“We’re here because we wanted a plan, we got the plan and now we’re trying to implement the plan,” Doyon said.

Without funding, cuts might look like play structures going without replacement after being removed for safety reasons, less mowing, watering, aerating for turf health, loss of picnic shelters, trail maintenance and more, according to Herrig and Lonnie Dalke, the park supervisor.

The city has 57 parks, plus pools, golf courses, the Natatorium and the Community Recreation Center. The forestry division, which falls under Park and Rec, also maintains the boulevard district trees with a separate assessment.

If the commission adopts a resolution to send the park district to the ballot, the resolution needs to include details on the initial assessment amount, the methodology and length of the assessment.

Cik told commissioners that if they wanted to change the methodology after the park district was adopted that it would require them to go back through the full process.

But the ballot language, as mandated by state law, will simply ask whether the district should be created.

The city’s district is proposed for 20 years and commissioners could vote to dissolve the district early if the park and rec needs are met sooner.

If the park district is adopted, the commission will still need to vote annually to set the assessment, as they do with the streets, boulevard and portage district assessments. Those public hearings and votes take place around the same time the city adopts the budget, usually in July or August.

Staff has worked to prioritize the needs, and if the district is approved, plans to start with items that would affect the most people and be the most visible. They’ve also taken some items off the list that had been identified in the master plan, such as a second dog park, to instead free up funds for needed, but maybe less exciting, maintenance needs.

Mayor Bob Kelly said “we’re recognizing a problem. Parks are the one thing that’s available to everyone.”

He said the parks are free (pools and golf carry user fees that help with maintenance and operations) and that they help attract a work force and promote healthy lifestyles. They also offer a space for kids to play and help keep them out of trouble.

“For those people who say I don’t use the parks, well, kids do,” Kelly said.

Houck said she had heard some community discussion on selling parks to reduce maintenance fees, but said it would be “foolish” to do so since the parks are a community asset for tourism as well.

Selling city parkland requires a 4/5 commission vote and even discussion of selling parkland has met with strong opposition in most cases over the last five years. The commission will also consider during the Jan. 16 meeting the sale of a small portion of Lions Park to an adjacent landowner so he could make improvements to his building.

City Commission to hear first reading of proposed sale of portion of Lions Park

Commissioner Bill Bronson said his fellow commissioners should prepare themselves for possible failure of the ballot question, despite his personal support for the park district.

City Attorney Sara Sexe told commissioners that the city would need to file with the Commissioner of Political Practices as an incidental political committee and will be required to file financial disclosures related to staff time and resources spent on educating the public on the park district, if commissioners send it to the ballot.

Commissioners are allowed to have their own opinions about the district and are able to share those, but need to ensure they aren’t doing it if and when city resources have been involved, such as using a city computer to make a flier or presentation.

The city is able to provide informational fliers, post information on the website and give informational presentations on the proposed district, much like the Great Falls Public Schools did recently for their levy, but the city must stay within the educational realm versus promotional, Sexe advised commissioners.