Gazette opinion: Park benefits don't justify end run around voters

2011-11-18T00:10:00Z Gazette opinion: Park benefits don't justify end run around voters The Billings Gazette
November 18, 2011 12:10 am

Billings has more parks than it can afford to properly maintain. Limited general fund tax revenue has been prioritized for police and fire services at the expense of parks. Maintenance projects have piled up.

We value city parks and trails and agree that they need more resources. However, that end doesn’t justify the means the City Council is pursuing: Forming a citywide park maintenance district without a vote of the citizens.

The council can create that district on Dec. 19 — unless protests covering 51 percent of the taxable value of the district are filed.

This is a more expeditious process of increasing city revenue than holding an election. And that’s part of the problem: Billings property owners — residents, nonresidents and corporations — have 30 days to consider whether they want to fund the district. They may also consider that:

  • The 30-day protest period doesn’t allow for fulsome public debate as an election does.
  • This effort to raise taxes without a vote may have ripple effects on future issues that require voter approval.
  • The timing is bad, coming the week after voters approved a $16.3 million library bond, which will cost homeowners less per year than the proposed park district.
  • Protest decisions of larger property owners will have more weight than smaller ones.
  • In 25 residential neighborhoods, property owners already pay annual levies to maintenance districts for their neighborhood parks built since 2003. The new citywide district would be an additional levy.

In this column last Sunday, we called on the City Council to put the park district to a vote of the electorate. At Monday’s meeting, Councilwoman Angela Cimmino moved that the district go to a citizens’ vote, but her motion failed. Later, only Cimmino and Councilman Richard McFadden voted in opposition to the resolution that started the 30-day protest period.

The council still can decide to put this park district to voters in a referendum. If many community members call for a vote, the council should put park funding on a ballot next year.

Now is the time to speak up! Contact your City Council representatives or send a letter to The Gazette’s Voice of the Reader at speakup@billingsgazette.com, P.O. Box 36300 Billings, MT 59107 or fax to 657-1208.

Meanwhile, the city has mailed about 39,000 notices of its intent to create the citywide park district to property owners. To file a valid protest, owners must respond to the city clerk in writing by Dec. 16. That protest letter can be as simple as “I protest the park district.” The letter must include the tax code number from your Yellowstone County tax bill.

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