A proposal to strengthen Billings’ parks system will, if approved later this year by the city council, add $15 per year in Park District 1 taxes on a $200,000 home.
The current levy is $30 per $200,000 residence. That raises $2 million annually, an amount the proposal’s backers say won’t cover the park system’s anticipated replacement needs over the next 15 years, estimated at $22 million. The new levy would raise an additional $1 million annually.
In the coming weeks, members of the city’s Parks, Recreation and Cemetery board are taking their proposal to various Billings groups to explain what improvements are needed where and when, and how parks officials can tap funds they already have.
On Tuesday, Board Chairman Rick DeVore and board member Tom Rupsis pitched the proposal, more than a year in the making, to members of The Billings Gazette Editorial board.
Billings has four regional parks — Castle Rock, Pioneer, North and South Park, the city’s oldest. Constructed in 1982, Castle Rock Park in the Heights is the most recent regional park the city has developed. Those four parks are maintained and equipped through the city’s general fund.
Smaller neighborhood parks — 37 of them — are maintained by park maintenance districts. A recent survey as part of an update to the city’s parks master plan indicates 60 percent of residents say they support improving the city's parks and trails.
Board members note there is no parkland along the proposed inner belt loop. They also said the parks master plan states that the increasing popularity of youth sports — including soccer, lacrosse and rugby — means that up to 200 additional acres are needed for unprogrammed use, such as practice space.
The most underserved neighborhoods are the South Side and the West End, the master plan states. The plan also calls for additional dog parks.
Park District 1, which the city council passed in 2011, initially came about to pay for $9 million in deferred maintenance. According to Rupsis, part of that maintenance work remains, including more fall protection, additional restrooms, tennis court renovations, water slides and irrigation upgrades.
“The problems still exist, but we’re not in a crisis mode like we were,” he said. “But the needs for new development are now so much greater.”
Included in the comprehensive plan’s long-range vision is a $30 million community center that could, among other amenities, house indoor sports.
There are traditional funding options to help pay for the proposal, including general obligation and revenue bonds. There’s also an estimated $1 million that the city has received over the past 35 years from subdivision developers in lieu of donating parkland.
Parks Board members said the city’s Finance Department is currently identifying possible restrictions on how that money may be spent. In general, those funds must be spent in the neighborhood where the new development occurred.
Proponents say they see that money as “kickstart funding.” Other potential funding sources include the city’s ending fund balance, now around $12 million.
Parks officials say more and more private groups, including service clubs, are partnering with the department to sponsor facility improvements. The Billings Kiwanis Club has joined with Landon’s Legacy to raise $1.5 million of the $5 million needed to construct an accessible ball field and playground at Poly Vista Park next to Arrowhead Elementary School east of 38th Street West.
“But there aren’t a lot of groups lined up to build bathrooms,” DeVore said. “Groups are more willing to build a picnic shelter or a playground.”
Still, since the council approved a master plan for Poly Vista Park last month, “there is more energy for park development,” DeVore said.
Should the council approve the proposal, proponents say they want to use $2 million of the $3 million that would be available in 2018 on core infrastructure improvements at Centennial Park, 32nd Street West and St. Johns Avenue.
The next year would see projects begun at Poly Vista Park, Optimist Park at 447 Hallowell Lane, and Castle Rock Park.
“We want to commit to a 10-year development period,” DeVore said. “The future bonding of a recreation center is dependent on demonstrating success.”