Gazette opinion: Let people vote on citywide park district plan

2011-11-13T00:10:00Z Gazette opinion: Let people vote on citywide park district plan The Billings Gazette
November 13, 2011 12:10 am

On Monday night, the Billings City Council will hold a public hearing on a plan to add a new tax on all property within the city limits. The tax would raise $2 million annually for city park maintenance.

Our city parks need more resources to tackle many millions of dollars in deferred maintenance and to keep parks and trails all across the city from deteriorating. The city has proposed a list of projects to be funded with the first three years of the proposed new tax proceeds.

We agree with the goal of better parks funding. However, the method proposed gives us pause.

This community just approved a $16.3 million library bond issue after more than a year with dozens of public meetings to discuss and plan a great new library. But voters were the ultimate decision makers; they agreed to pay taxes for 20 years to finance the project.

Under the citywide park maintenance district proposal, there would be no vote of the electorate. The 11 members of the City Council would decide whether to create this new taxing district. The district would be permanent, unless the council dissolved it. The council could raise or lower the district tax assessments annually.

Our city already has numerous park maintenance districts that fund the development and upkeep of neighborhood parks. The proposed citywide district would be created in addition to those districts and under the same law. But it would not be the same.

The parks that would be improved are now supported through the general fund, which draws most of its revenue from the property tax mill levy that is capped by the City Charter. The intent of creating a district is to add $2 million annually in council-mandated assessments to whatever general fund revenues the council budgets for parks.

By law, a majority of property owners in a park maintenance district can protest and stop its creation.

This gives property owners real power when the district is small. However, a valid protest of the citywide district would require thousands of property owners to file written protests with the city clerk within 30 days — if the council votes to proceed.

Public hearing Monday

The council directed city administration to put this plan on the agenda. Legal notice has been given of Monday’s public hearing, which will be sometime after 6:30 p.m. at City Hall. The idea of such a district has been supported by the park board and it was discussed with the small groups attending the council’s community conversations earlier this year.

But the park tax hasn’t been scrutinized to the extent that a voted levy would be.

We call on the City Council to put the park maintenance district to a vote of the people. If the issue were on the June 2012 primary ballot and voters approved, the district could start collecting taxes in November 2012, the same time it would if the council created a district this December.

Readers should know that this isn’t a done deal. Concerned citizens should contact their City Council representatives or attend the Monday hearing. Let the council know if you want a vote or prefer a district created without an election.

12-mill annual levy

The proposed resolution to create the citywide park district states that raising $2 million in fiscal 2013 would require a levy estimated at 12.39 mills on each parcel of property within the city. That would be about $16 annually for a home with a value of $100,000.

The park district assessment the council is considering is actually about double the annual estimated taxpayer cost of the library bond voters approved last week.

To honor the intent of the mill levy cap in the City Charter and the right of citizens to decide whether services that have always been funded with capped taxes should receive additional tax support, the council should ask the voters to pass judgment on a citywide park maintenance district.

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