Pay to Play: Working group poised to recommend city ask voters to create new parks and rec district | SteamboatToday.com

Pay to Play: Working group poised to recommend city ask voters to create new parks and rec district

Scott Franz

— The parks and recreation lobby in Steamboat Springs has in recent years become the city's most passionate and tenacious group.

From an additional sheet of ice to more trails to new pickleball courts, there are currently several groups in the city begging for funding and support.

This lobby also packs in more public meetings than any other group in the city.

When city officials floated the idea of ceding a small corner of an undeveloped park to a new police station in 2013, community members quickly banded together to stop it.

When the U.S. Forest Service invited residents in 2014 to draw on a map the places they would like to see new trails in the region, dozens of residents packed a conference room like sardines and used markers to plot out miles of dream trails.

When Steamboat Springs City Council asked the community earlier this month to share its vision for Howelsen Hill, Citizens Hall was standing room only as more than 100 community members showed up to offer ideas and express support.

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And when city officials asked the public last month to help pick new amenities to build at Bear River Park, more than 100 residents participated in a card game to vote for everything ranging from a new fieldhouse to an expansion of the existing skate park.

But all of these recent dreams, ideas and visions have met a hard truth.

The city doesn't even have enough money to adequately maintain what it already has.

Howelsen continues to slide, and the facilities continue to age.

The city itself has currently identified $14.9 million worth of parks and recreation projects it wants to complete but currently cannot afford to fund.

The list of parked projects includes such things as

$4.4 million in improvements to the rodeo grounds, $4.4 million worth of Yampa River Core Trail extensions, new public restrooms, snowmaking improvements at Howelsen, parking lot expansions and the eventual renovations of Howelsen's ski jumps.

"We have an insatiable appetite for all things recreation," Councilman Scott Ford said last week at a meeting to discuss alternative ways of funding recreation amenities in the future. "This puts the council in an interesting spot. The pressure is building."

As this pressure builds, a committee of elected officials, volunteers and recreation enthusiasts is leaning toward pitching a possible alternative.

As early as next year, voters here could be asked whether they would support a property tax increase to better fund all things parks and recreation and ease the burden on a general fund that must also take care of vital services, such as police, fire, water and snow plowing.

Hit hard

When the economy tanked in 2008, the city's planning and parks and recreation departments were hardest hit.

Prior to the recession, the department had 79.3 full-time workers.

Today, it has 55.47, and it has inherited more responsibilites, including maintaining the irrigation systems on new medians on U.S.Highway 40.

The drop in FTEs in parks and rec accounted for more than half of the total FTE cuts citywide.

It's proof that when times at the city get tough, parks and rec is one of the more expendable departments.

Currently, funding is tight enough that the city has designated three tiers of parks so it can maintain them at different levels.

The parks department also competes for funds with city services that will likely always be viewed as more vital, including police, fire, water, snow plowing and wastewater.

Through 2021, the city is planning to spend $5.6 million in capital within the parks and rec department.

By comparison, the public works capital projects total $31 million throughout the next six years.

City officials also think they do not currently have the resources to maintain city parks and trails to the level and standard of other communities on the Western Slope area.

They have made it a goal to change this during the next three years.

As of last year, parks and rec was spending $2,191 per acre to maintain all park grounds.

According to Parks and Recreation Director John Overstreet, cities across the country are spending a median amount of $5,236 to maintain an acre of parkland.

He added Breckenridge, Durango, Fruita, Grand Junction and Silverthorne were together spending an average of $3,670 per acre in 2014.

"The issue is, with a lack of a dedicated funding source for capital operations and maintenance, it's difficult for us to forecast, to plan with any regularity and to provide the level of service we believe the community is looking for," Parks and Recreation Commissioner Doug Tumminello told City Council last year.

The funding issue has started to dominate parks and rec commission meetings.

Commissioners, who have, in recent years, sought more influence and a stronger voice, are left to sigh and bring up the funding gap after they vet and approve new master plans and endorse proposals, such as the expansion of the ice arena, only to see the plans sit on shelves.

New tax?

The working group studying the parks and rec funding issue made it clear last week it is leaning toward recommending a property tax and a new parks and recreation district to address the funding gap.

It would then be up to residents to sign a petition and push the issue forward.

But first, the group wants to figure out how big that funding gap is, exactly. It then has a number of other questions

to consider.

What would be the taxing boundaries of the district?

Will the city cede management of its recreation assets, including Howelsen Hill, to a new government?

It would be unusual, but not unprecedneted, for a municipality to spin off its recreation assets and create a new parks and rec district.

Most districts that exist in the state started decades ago in unicorporated areas.

Most were started because the residents of a town wanted a specific type of amenity, such as a swimming pool or a rec center.

In Eagle, a community effort to build a swimming pool 36 years ago eventually evolved into a countywide recreation district that has produced millions of dollars worth of new parks, recreation centers and ice rinks to Eagle, Edwards and Gypsum.

A district isn't the only option the community would have.

The city would also have the option of proposing a General Improvement District, or GID, to voters.

The GID could collect a sales tax or property tax, if voters improve it.

Under this scenario, City Council would continue to oversee funding of the parks and recreation department, not an independently elected board.

Councilman Scott Ford said last week he might be able to stomach a property tax proposal if the city agreed to phase out the sales tax currently charged on groceries.

And many committee members appeared to favor a district that would either be confined to the Steamboat city limits or not too far beyond those limits.

The discussions initially started with overtures to other communities in Routt County to gauge their interest in a regional district.

But Overstree said other communities in Routt County were largely satisfied with their current recreation amenities.

He said the bigger issue for them is improving transportation to and from the facilities in Steamboat.

The working group met again Friday, and indicated in a straw poll that most members in attendance were in favor of recommending a parks district.

However, the working group indicated it would not want to cede over the city's recreation assets, such as Howelsen Hill, to a new board with no track record.

Instead, amenities could be leased to the new district.

Pros and cons

The thought of creating a new government with the ability to collect taxes hasn't been met with uniform praise in recent years.

The previous City Council was so concerned by the Parks and Rec Commission's discussions about the idea, some members wanted the group to stop them and put off any consideration of a district.

The council members said any such initiative should originate from a grassroots effort led by residents, not by the city itself.

More recently, Interim City Manager Gary Suiter also expressed concerns about creating a new government to oversee the city's parks and recreation amenities.

He noted it could result in the need for redundant services the city currently already takes care of.

For example, a parks and rec district would require its own human resources, accounting and legal help.

Those items are currently handled by the city.

A new funding source for parks and rec would also come with both potential benefits and cons.

A dedicated property tax would give the department more certainty when it comes to budget planning.

But a reliance on property tax could distress the budget in an economic downturn, as sales tax declines currently do.

Having a grand plan

The alternative funding committee knows voters here won't agree to be taxed for parks and rec amenities if there isn't an enticing enough plan and vision for how the extra funds would be spent.

"Voters don't like approving a blank check," Routt County Commissioner Cari Hermacinski said.

Last week, the group met with Dee Wisor, an attorney who specializes in the formation of special taxing districts, and heard stories about how some ballot measures have gone down in flames.

In one Colorado community, a group of older citizens and retirees who had no desire to pay for a new rec center banded together and thwarted a property tax proposal.

To prevent such a situation, the alternative funding group here started hashing out an initial outline of a case for additional revenue.

It cannot be focused only on building a new recreation center, they said.

It must also include plans such as saving and improving Howelsen Hill.

"We also have Steamboat II, that wants to be connected to the city (via trails) and old plans for regional trails extending all the way to Wyoming," Overstreet said.

Wanting to adequately plan any potential ballot initiative, the group resolved to hold off on any potential tax proposal until 2017.

What is a parks and recreation district?

A parks district is essentially a new form of government with the ability to levy taxes. It’s similar to a water district, or a fire district. Voters must approve the formation of a district and accept the boundaries.

How do they get their funding?

Voters in a district must also approve paying into it. In Steamboat Springs, an alternative funding committee appears to most favor a property tax proposal to fund a parks district. It hasn’t decided how much of a property tax it would like to see levied yet. First, it wants to figure out how much of a shortfall the parks and rec department is currently facing.

Who oversees a parks district?

Districts have their own elected boards that make decisions similar to a City Council. Just like a council, the parks district board holds public meetings and adopts budgets. The district board would also oversee a director of the parks department. It would be like the Parks and Rec Commission moving to an elected board and getting more power rather than just an advisory board.

Why is a city group looking into this?

The City Council endorsed the formation of a working group to analyze alternative forms of funding parks and recreation. Council members think the city’s appetite for new parks and rec amenities can no longer be adequately fulfilled by the city’s general fund. Many members of this working group think that by forming a new government and funding structure to oversee just parks and rec, a board could better implement a vision for future amenities. This would also take the pressure off of City Council, which is often asked to fund new amenities it cannot afford because it must first pay for more vital items such as public works, fire and police.