'Parks seem to get the ax first': Laurel voters to decide on funding for town's 16 parks

2014-04-02T08:45:00Z 2014-08-21T12:58:54Z 'Parks seem to get the ax first': Laurel voters to decide on funding for town's 16 parksBy MIKE FERGUSON mferguson@billingsgazette.com The Billings Gazette

LAUREL — Laurel voters will mark their ballots June 3 to decide whether residents want the certainty of funding — and the property tax hike — that comes through a park maintenance district.

The Laurel Park Maintenance District, should it receive voter approval, would have the authority to levy up to 41.59 mills to provide services and maintain improvements at Laurel’s 16 parks, according to preliminary information provided by Yellowstone County election administrator Bret Rutherford.

The levy would raise about $250,000 annually by increasing the property taxes on a $100,000 home by about $55.33 annually.

“When people look to cut funds, parks seem to get the ax first,” said Laurel Mayor Mark Mace, who until last year chaired the city’s Parks Board.

The Laurel City Council approved the referendum on March 4, sending the question to the voters, said city clerk and treasurer Shirley Ewan. The idea has been in the works for about a year, she said.

“When you have as many parks as we do, it’s hard to keep up with everything,” she said. “There’s nothing out there that doesn’t need help.”

During the 2013-14 fiscal year, the city is scheduled to spend $275,000 of its $4,229,000 general fund budget on parks, Ewan said. That’s about 6.5 percent of the general fund budget. At about $1.7 million, the police budget comprises about 40 percent of general fund spending.

Mace said that parks compete for general fund dollars with essential services including police and fire. Amenities like parks often suffer when budgets must be trimmed.

“We thought that if we had a fund designated for parks, park improvements would get done,” he said. “That’s the main reason” that the city council passed the referendum last month, he said.

He said a handful of Laurel parks are in need of new equipment and facilities. Some tennis courts “have fallen apart” and playground swings, once held together with patchwork welding, have had the welds fail to the point that the equipment had to be taken down, Mace said.

He said Laurel is rich with parks, which also contributes to the department’s budget being stretched thin. Developers sometimes give unbuildable parcels to the city for park development. “We have areas set aside to develop, but no money to do that,” he said.

According to the mayor, a survey of residents indicated most Laurel residents would prefer that the city sell the parcels it can’t develop into parks. The survey also indicated that, given the choice, at least a plurality of residents support dedicated funding for parks, but at the lowest of four alternatives presented — $25 per year.

“It may be that they’re saying they can’t stand any more taxes,” Mace said. “I know the school has had a tough time with bond issues.”

Mace said he supports the referendum, as does the current co-chair of the Parks Board, Scot Stokes.

“I know it will hike people’s taxes, but the teens and the younger kids deserve something,” Stokes said. “Billings put in a skate park and we have heard it did a lot of good, because the kids help police it and keep it maintained. The more you can do for kids, the more you can keep them out of trouble.”

“I’m not saying change will happen overnight,” he added. “But if people understand why we are doing it, they will say yes.”

The Billings City Council authorized a citywide park maintenance district in 2011.

Copyright 2015 The Billings Gazette. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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