Park district goes to May 8 ballot
City Commissioners voted 5-0 to send the park district question to the ballot.
State law requires the question to be on the May 8 ballot.
No one spoke in opposition to sending the park district to the ballot, but several spoke in favor.
The park district as proposed is $1.5 million for the first three years, but the assessment rate must be set by the commission annually. The city is proposing a three-year budget and work plan but to be clear, the assessment must be approved annually, which includes an annual public hearing, as required by state law. That’s similar to how to city handles other assessments, including portage meadows, streets and the boulevard assessment.
The proposed district would be 20 years but commissioners could vote to end it early if the needs are met sooner.
If approved by voters on the May 8 ballot, the assessment would be based on taxable property values and would be about $22.92 annually for a $100,000 property, according to city data.
To create a park district, state law requires that municipalities first send response forms to all those who own property within the proposed district boundary.
Last summer, 21.6 percent of the forms were returned in opposition to the district, but about half that protest came from a single company.
The protest forms did not constitute a public vote and only polled property owners. All eligible voters in the city limits will be able to vote on the park district on the May 8 ballot and special ballots will be printed with just the park district question since state law allows those who own property within the district to vote even if they don’t live in the city.
Missoula and Billings have already adopted park districts.
Bruce Pollington, president of the River’s Edge Trail Foundation, said the city has been richly blessed with parks and recreation opportunities.
“I feel that we have an obligation to ensure they are maintained,” he said.
The park district would help establish an ongoing source of funding to keep park and rec facilities in good condition.
Pollington said he’d had to see facilities close because they couldn’t be maintained.
“We all benefit directly and indirectly from our parks and trail system,” he said.
Roger Curtis, is a member of the city’s golf board and has been attending meetings and discussions on the proposed park district.
“Let’s send it to the voters, let them decide,” he said, but also encouraged the city to educate voters about the district and the needs in the park and rec department.
Anders Blewett is the vice president of the River’s Edge Trail Foundation and supports the park district.
“This is a fairly modest investment,” he said, in what is a critical asset to the city.
The upfront spending to build and develop facilities has already been done, Blewett said, and selling parkland is ill-advised.
“Once it goes away, it’s gone forever,” he said.
Blewett said the trails, parks and recreational opportunities in the region are a factor when people look to relocate to Great Falls and that gives the city a competitive advantage in recruiting workers and businesses.
“I think everybody realizes parks are a special thing,” he said.
Tianta Stevens said she’s an avid user of the trails and park system, but asked commissioners to consider the flat tax.
“Parks are crucial to this city and I do want to support our parks…but basically I’m being taxed out of my home,” she said.
Staff and commissioners did consider a flat fee, but staff determined it would not be equitable for commercial property owners.
Chuck and Gerry Jennings were among the group of citizens who created the River’s Edge Trail in the 1990s.
“It is the envy of everyone in this state,” Gerry Jennings said during the hearing.
Sheila Rice, outgoing director of NeighborWorks Great Falls, said “parks are really important to neighborhoods and we want to keep our neighborhoods strong.”
Jeni Dodd said she’s always a fan of letting the voters decide, but she said the city should reprioritize the parks.
She said she’d rather see a few well maintained parks and maybe not sell the others but keep them and maintain them as green space.
In many cases, that’s what the city is already doing with the less developed parks.
Commissioner Bill Bronson said that in the 1880s, the city’s founder Paris Gibson recognized there was a great value to parks.
“I don’t think that particular concept has lost any traction,” he said.
The community needs open spaces and parks where people can come together without having to pay a fee, Bronson said.
It’s been suggested in online comments and conversations around town that the city should sell parkland.
“It will not work,” Bronson said.
In the past when there’s been talk of selling parkland, the opposition was swift and severe at commission meetings and other public meetings related to the idea, he said.
Putting a piece of city parkland on the market requires appraisals and he said the land uses would be limited since most parks are in residential areas.
“You’re also assuming there’s even a market in those kind of situations,” he said.
Commissioner Mary Moe said the city recreation facilities are in disrepair.
She said as a city resource, the commission needs to ensure parks and recreation facilities are maintained and they ensure equal access to recreational opportunities.
“Our parks are a big recruitment tool,” she said. “If we let them deteriorate, it will have opposite effect.”