New taxing entity would support facilities and programs in Winthrop, Twisp

BY ANN McCREARY

Two local residents want to give Methow Valley citizens the opportunity to create a special taxing district to support parks and recreation facilities and related programs in the valley.

It’s an idea that has been discussed for years as local elected officials and community members struggle to find money to support recreational opportunities such as the Wagner Memorial Pool in Twisp and the Winthrop Ice and Sports Rink.

Fred Wert and Jay Lucas, local residents with backgrounds in promoting recreation, have been working during the past year to lay the groundwork for the creation of a parks and recreation district.

They have begun distributing petitions around the valley calling for the creation of a parks and recreation district with the same boundaries as Methow Valley School District 350. Under state law, the petition needs to be signed by at least 15 percent of the registered voters in the proposed district boundaries (in this case 600 people), and sent to the Okanogan County Commission. After a public hearing, the district would be created and an election would subsequently be held for five district commissioners who would oversee the district and set the tax levy.

Wert said he and Lucas took on the project in recognition of the importance of recreation in the Methow Valley, and with a desire to create a more equitable and dependable source of funding for recreation facilities and programs.

“This is a recreation-based place. Recreation is an economic draw.  It attracts people to come here, spend money here, move here,” Wert said.

“Jay and I are aware that Twisp and Winthrop are supporting facilities used by residents and visitors. The model in other places is that the county does that. But Okanogan County doesn’t really have a presence in the valley, and isn’t likely to,” Wert said in an interview this week.

King County’s parks and recreation division, for instance, boasts 200 parks, 175 miles of trails and 26,000 acres of open space. In the Methow Valley, the burden of funding recreation facilities falls on the two cash-strapped towns.

 

Exploring local interest

Lucas and Wert bring considerable related experience to the work they are doing to promote recreation in the valley. Lucas worked for a recreation service area in Alaska before becoming executive director of the Methow Valley Sport Trails Association (MVSTA) for 30 years. Wert is a founding member of Washington Wildlife and Recreation Coalition, which advocates and raises funds for state wildlife and recreation programs.

During the past year they have been talking with state and county officials to explore the legal aspects of creating a special taxing district. They have also met with town leaders, school district officials, MVSTA, the Kiwanis Club and other groups with an interest in local recreation opportunities.

“Intuitively, it’s obvious there is a need today that is not being met, and a desire for a mechanism to improve facilities, bring new facilities in, and maintain the ones we have,” Wert said.

Twisp Mayor Soo Ing-Moody said the topic of creating a parks and recreation district comes up frequently among town officials, especially during discussions of the town’s major recreation attraction – the Wagner Memorial Pool. Used by residents from throughout the valley as well as visitors, the pool is supported by the taxpayers of Twisp.

The town struggles to keep the aging pool operating. Largely through fundraising by nonprofit community groups, including Friends of the Pool and Kiwanis, a new $17,000 boiler was purchased and installed to heat the pool this summer – good news to swimmers who have endured teeth-chattering water temperatures in past years.

But the pool continues to leak water at the rate of about 7,500 gallons per day. That’s equivalent to a garden hose running full force all day long, said Twisp Public Works Superintendent Howard Moss. Moss has worked to locate and repair leaks, but they are so pervasive that only a very expensive reconstruction of the pool structure can solve the problem.

The town struggled to come up with the $65,000 that it cost Twisp to operate the facility last year, Ing-Moody said. “Twisp has under 1,000 residents who are carrying this burden. That’s a lot of money for town residents to be shouldering alone,” she said.

 

Programs could benefit

While the Twisp pool is an example of the kind of recreational use that could benefit from a broader funding base, Wert said a parks and recreation district would support not just facilities, but programs as well.

“Organizations that provide recreation opportunities, both indoor and outdoor, would be eligible for funds,” Wert said. The five elected district commissioners would determine what programs and facilities are funded, and would have the ability to contract with other entities to provide recreational opportunities, or create programs that would be operated by the district.

Examples of potential projects are included in a document prepared by Wert and Lucas summarizing key points of the parks and recreation district proposal. For instance, the district could contract with Twisp to provide support for an outdoor pool; contract with the school district to provide a youth baseball program; contract with MVSTA to provide a cross country skiing program; or provide matching funds for state grants for projects such as the Winthrop Ice and Sports Rink, the Susie Stephens Trail or the Twisp Community Trail.

Funding recreation through a district-wide tax levy would spread the financial burden of supporting recreational facilities and programs more equitably among the people who use them, Wert said.

“The two towns are providing most of the developed recreation facilities,” which are used by all residents of the valley, as well as visitors and second homeowners, Wert said. “In fact, 85.6 percent of the assessed value in School District 350 is located outside the two towns. By having a recreation district which taxes all potential beneficiaries of these facilities, local residents’ burden for supporting these facilities is greatly reduced.”

The funding priorities of the district would be set by the elected commissioners, with public feedback, Lucas said. Voters would have to approve the levy with a 60 percent majority. “The voters get to decide how much they want to fund, if they want to fund it,” he said.

It will take a while to get to the point of generating tax income for local recreation opportunities, Wert said. If the petition drive is successful in creating a parks and recreation district this year, Wert said, elected commissioners may be able to develop priorities and plans and propose a levy as early as 2014, which means revenues wouldn’t be received until 2015.