News

Do taxpayers want a Metro Park District?

by MARK ST.J. COUHIG
Sequim Gazette

SARC is feeling the squeeze.

 

Board members of the Sequim Aquatic Recreation Center are concerned the City of Sequim may be angling to take over the operations of their multi-purpose facility on North Fifth Avenue.

 

City officials, particularly City Manager Steve Burkett, say that’s not the case.

 

The question arose in connection with a new parks and recreation “needs survey” the city will send out soon to citizens in Sequim and to county residents living beyond the city’s limits.

 

The survey, which will be delivered to a randomly chosen sampling of the population, asks respondents to provide comments on three items:

1) Are your recreational needs being met?

 

2) If not, what additional recreational opportunities would you like to see added?

 

3) Would you be willing to pay to have those needs fulfilled? If so, how much?

 

Burkett calls the survey a “needs analysis,” and describes it as part of his effort to ensure the city runs like a business.

 

The folks at SARC aren’t so sure.

 

Sue Sorensen. president of the SARC board, said Burkett spoke at its May 4 meeting, explaining that SARC would be included in the survey because it potentially could become part of either a to-be-formed city parks and recreation department or a new metropolitan park district. If the city council decides to a pursue a metro park district, it then would have to decide if it would be located solely within the city or would extend into the county.

 

Burkett said the council is at least considering creating a metro district that essentially would include all of the area now within the jurisdiction of Clallam County Parks and Recreation District 1, which is more often simply referred to as SARC.

 

SARC “could be an important element” of the new plan, he told the board.

 

Sorensen said “We were kind of shocked” by the discussion.

Who pays?

Burkett told the board the City of Sequim is unusual in having no parks and recreation department. The city owns parks and provides recreational opportunities but the facilities are maintained by the Public Works Department, he said.

 

Creating a new City of Sequim Parks and Recreation Department is one option. If the council decides to create a new metropolitan park district that extends into the county, the Clallam County Commission would have to agree, as would voters in the proposed district.

 

Burkett told the SARC board the city currently asks 6,000 Sequim residents to pay for parks that are used by 20,000 Clallam County residents.

 

He noted that forming a metro parks district conterminous with SARC’s boundaries would greatly expand the available tax base.

 

The current property valuation within Sequim is $1 billion, he said, while the additional reach of such a metro park district would include another $3 billion in valuation.

 

The new survey will test the waters for the idea.

Does SARC work?

Burkett spoke bluntly with the SARC board, saying he doesn’t believe its current financial model, which is supported solely by user fees, is sustainable. He pointed out that the previous two efforts by SARC to pass tax levies had failed.

 

Sorensen agreed with Burkett’s evaluation, saying, “He’s right. We can’t.” Sorensen said at the end of April the organization had about $790,000 in the bank. She estimated SARC could operate as it does now for “about five years. Twenty years from now, this model won’t work.”

 

She also pointed out that raising monies through levies would be much tougher if SARC were required to compete with a metro district that already was taxing residents for parks and recreation.

 

She said 60 percent of voters must approve a SARC levy. “If we can’t get a levy, we’re stuck without funding forever.”

 

Burkett told the board, “In a practical sense if you have to get 60 percent, you’re already stuck.”

Sorensen said the building itself is paid for but that the maintenance and upkeep costs are very high, including $10,000 a month spent on electricity and propane.

 

She also pointed out there is a broad misunderstanding among the public as to what SARC is. “(Voters) assume we have government funding,” she said. “But we’re a public facility that receives no public money.”

 

She said with the revenue from passes and daily admission fees, “we’re doing OK, but everyone is looking for additional funding.”

 

Sorensen said her own board also had discussed creating a metro parks district, “But in this economy? That’s why we haven’t pursued it.”

 

Sorensen said she also was upset by a phone call she received from Burkett after he was contacted by a reporter from the Gazette about the issue. She said he asked her not to speak to the press.

 

Burkett denies making the request, saying he would never ask an elected official to refrain from speaking with the media.

Three choices

Burkett told the board that turning over the SARC assets to the metro district or a new city parks and recreation department would be just one of three options. He said the board also could choose to continue to operate as it currently does, but told the board, “I don’t think that’s the best option for the city.”

 

If the board chose to join in the larger effort, another option would be to deed over the assets, Burkett said. Or, he said, the board could continue to operate SARC facilities, but it could contract with the metro district which would provide funding.

 

“Then you still own the facility,” he said.

 

Burkett said the city would be faced with the same decision. The council could choose to deed over the current parks to the district, which then would be responsible for maintaining and operating the facilities.

That’s a tough choice, he said, because the governing board of the new metro parks district would include members from beyond city borders, thus reducing city control over its former assets.

 

The benefit to SARC and the city, he pointed out, is that the metro district would have permanent funding and the larger district would distribute the cost of maintaining city parks and recreational facilities more equitably to the end users.

Up to the voters

Burkett also said another option is possible: It may be that the surveys reflect that the Sequim and county residents are satisfied with the current offerings or that they may want more but are unwilling to pay for them. In either case, nothing will happen, Burkett said.

 

Sorensen still is unconvinced: “My bottom line is, I want to do what’s best for community and I’m uneasy.”

 

She said the other board members are similarly unsettled. “Fortunately, they’re level-headed and they want to preserve this jewel we have right now.”

 

The surveys should be delivered to a random sampling of local citizens within the next two weeks, with a preliminary review of the responses due in July.

 

 

Reach Mark Couhig at mcouhig@sequimgazette.com.

 

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