The Billings City Council will start the ball rolling Monday on a process that could lead to the creation of a taxpayer-funded, multimillion-dollar park maintenance fund.
Without it, said Park Board member Richard DeVore, the city will continue closing down park facilities, as it has already done in recent years.
“We’re not trying to play hardball,” DeVore said. “We’re simply facing the reality of an old, aging park system.”
The first step in the process will occur during the City Council meeting Monday night, when the council will consider what is known as a resolution of intent to create a citywide park maintenance district.
The vote will be preceded by a public hearing. If that resolution is approved, all property owners in Billings will be notified by mail and they will have 30 days to protest the creation of the district. If more than 50 percent of all property owners lodge written protests, the proposal would die automatically.
If that threshold is not reached, the council would hold another public hearing and vote on whether to create the district at its meeting Dec. 19.
Like all maintenance districts, whether for streets, storm water systems or parks, assessments for the district would be set annually by the City Council.
The Park Board has recommended setting the district assessment at $2 million a year for the first three years, with $1.5 million each year going for one-time park improvements and the rest for ongoing maintenance.
If the district were created and if the assessment were set at $2 million a year, taxes on a $100,000 house would increase by $16 a year, and by $32 a year on a house valued at $200,000. That is roughly twice the annual increase that property owners will see on their tax bills as a result of the 20-year, $16 million bond issue for a new city library that was approved by voters on Tuesday.
In a staff memo to the council, it says that the Park Board recommendation to proceed with creation of the park district “was contingent on completing the Library bond election.”
DeVore said the board wanted to proceed no matter how the bond election went, but “we kind of kept this in the background so we wouldn’t impact the library.”
Mike Whitaker, director of the Parks and Recreation Department, said the Park Board came up with the proposal after being directed by the City Council 15 months ago to try to find some means of dealing with $9 million worth of deferred maintenance in the park system.
With little or no budget increases for the department over the past decade, Whitaker said, the department has already had to close the wading pool at South Park and tennis courts at Castle Rock Park. The playground equipment at Pioneer Park has reached the end of its life and the waterslides at Rose Park pool have to be replaced or scrapped within two years, he said.
Beyond that, he said, half the restrooms at city parks do not meet Americans with Disabilities Act requirements and most of them need major upgrades just to stay in service.
Money from the citywide district would be used for major parks like Pioneer, South, North and Amend. Smaller parks that are already supported by neighborhood park maintenance districts would continue to receive funding from those separate districts.
That means some residents would continue paying for neighborhood park districts as well as the citywide district. However, the Park Board did recommend that, if the citywide district is created, three years after that the Parks Department should submit a plan to the council for dissolving or reducing those smaller districts.
City Administrator Tina Volek said the Park Board looked at several options for funneling more money into the park system, including putting a special levy to a vote of the people.
But city employees cannot themselves campaign on behalf of a levy, she said, and there is no group prepared to undertake the sort of effort that library supporters came up with to push the bond issue for a new library.
“To mount the kind of campaign that was done with the library is a very difficult and expensive process,” she said.
Besides, she said, the Park Board figured that the protest option would be available to all property owners in the city, whereas turnout for city elections, until recently, rarely went above 50 percent of registered voters.
If people are opposed to the district, Volek, said, all they’ve got to do is mail in a written protest.
“If more than 50 percent protest, the initiative is dead,” she said.
The authority to create such special districts was granted to cities by a state law passed several years ago. Missoula became the first city in Montana to take advantage of it last year, when it created two special districts, one for parks and one for roads.
Bruce Bender, chief administrative officer for the city of Missoula, said the council created the districts only to fund road and parks maintenance. In the first year of operation, the assessment was set at $200,000 for parks and $300,000 for road maintenance. Before the districts were created, he said, fewer than 10 percent of property owners filed protests.
Whitaker said Billings residents have already indicated some support for increased park spending. In the citywide Parks and Recreation Needs Assessment conducted in 2009, he said, 62 percent of respondents favored higher spending on parks.
DeVore said the City Council would have ultimate control over the district, which it could dissolve at any time, and it would have to vote every year on how much money is needed for maintenance or repairs in the parks.
“I think people are going to say, ‘This is a good deal and we need it,’” DeVore said.