Powers, taxes, structure are questioned
By Ann McCreary
At a standing-room-only meeting last week about the proposed Methow Valley Recreation District, several speakers said they favored supporting recreation in the valley, but were leery of the potential power of the proposed district.
The meeting, sponsored by Friends of the Recreation District (FORD), drew about 50 people to the Mazama Community Club on Thursday (March 13). Proponents of the district held the meeting to give valley residents a chance to ask questions and meet some of the district commission candidates who support the idea.
Residents living within the boundaries of the Methow Valley School District will vote in a special election on April 22 to approve or reject the creation of a special taxing district to support recreation.
The ballot will also include the names of 13 candidates for a five-member commission that would oversee the district, including setting tax rates and deciding what programs and projects to support. Some of the candidates openly oppose creation of the district as currently proposed.
Five of the candidates on the ballot are endorsed by FORD, and three of them attended last week’s meeting. A recurring theme among speakers at the meeting was concern about the way the new recreation district would be structured and the power that would be vested in the commission.
“The idea and the intent is really good. The vehicle we’re trying to accomplish this with should be questioned,” said Mark Edson of Twisp. The state statute chosen by proponents to create the recreation district “doesn’t fit this valley,” Edson said.
Backers chose to structure the district as a Metropolitan Park District “for the management, control, improvement, maintenance, and acquisition of parks, parkways, boulevards, and recreational facilities,” as described in state statute RCW 35.61.
Several aspects of the Metropolitan Park District model were cited by speakers as reasons for concern — in particular the commissioners’ ability to levy up to 75 cents per $1,000 of valuation without a public vote, the ability to condemn property through eminent domain, and the ability of commissioners to pay themselves up to $8,640 per year.
Level of trust
The three candidates endorsed by FORD who attended the meeting — Camden Shaw, Julie Muyllaert and Kevin van Bueren — said that if elected to the district commission, they would vote not to receive payment for serving on the commission and would oppose any condemnation proceedings by the district. They also said they anticipated the tax rate to be 10 to 20 cents per $1,000 valuation, not the full 75 cents allowed under state law.
“We definitely recognize that many people are living on a limited income,” said Muyllaert. “We [candidates] are all business owners — we’re looking for a return on investment. Our job is to determine with public input what to fund.”
Approving the full tax levy of 75 cents per $1,000 valuation or using eminent domain to acquire land “would be social suicide” said van Bueren.
“I appreciate that you don’t want to do that. But you guys aren’t going to be there forever,” said Ron Perrow of Twisp. “The RCW is an over-reach. It gives the commission too much power. What we’re proposing is a new bureaucracy and a new tax, and to me it seems pretty open-ended.”
“I haven’t seen many agencies that don’t go after the maximum [tax rate] eventually,” said Doug Mohre of Winthrop. “Can any of you [candidates] say by setting a minimum it’s going to be that way forever?”
“This will be a locally defined district,” Muyllaert said. “There is a level of trust and if you’re not comfortable with that, vote against the district.”
Brian Sweet of Winthrop asked the candidates whether they would “be in favor of eminent domain for the Susie Stephens Trail where it has run up against a roadblock?”
“We don’t want to support that in any way,” van Bueren replied.
Wary of county
Edson asked why the backers of the district decided last year to use a different statute to create the district than the one they initially chose.
Fred Wert, active since last year in promoting a recreation district, said backers had originally gathered signatures under a state “Park and Recreation District” statute that, among other provisions, would require a public hearing by the Okanogan County Commission after the citizen petition was certified.
That statute, RCW 36.69, also required county commissioners to designate a name and fix the boundaries of the district after the public hearing, a provision that made backers uneasy.
Wert said proponents decided to change their strategy because the Metropolitan Park District statute didn’t involve the County Commission and consequently could be created — and generate tax revenue — more quickly.
Time is a factor, Wert said, because district backers hope to be able to provide local matching funds for state grants — which have a time limit for completion — for the Winthrop Ice & Sports Rink, a community trail in Twisp and the Susie Stevens Trail in Winthrop.
Additionally, Wert said, the Metropolitan Park District approach eliminated the possibility that commissioners would alter the proposed district boundaries.
“The commission could decide to make the boundaries one square mile,” Wert said. “We wanted local control.”
That sentiment was echoed by Jay Lucas, a district backer and former director of Methow Valley Sport Trails Association. “I want nothing to do with our county commissioners on this issue. I don’t trust them to do what’s in our best interest. I want nothing to do with our tax dollars going over to them … and having to fight to get them back.”
“This is a good way for us as a community to decide what we need and implement it,” said commission candidate Shaw.
In opening comments, the three candidates said the recreation district would provide long-term support to maintain recreational amenities like the Wagner Memorial Pool in Twisp and the Winthrop rink; more equitably distribute the financial burden of recreation facilities that is carried by the valley’s two towns; increase access to recreation and provide local control of recreation facilities and programs; and generate funds to develop new recreation facilities and programs.
More meetings scheduled
Duncan Bronson of Winthrop questioned whether additional new taxes for recreation would make voters less inclined to support school levies or a levy expected in November to build a new fire station in Winthrop.
“Is recreation more of a priority than other needs?” Bronson asked.
Ed Surette of Winthrop said he was uncomfortable with the ability of district commissioners to set tax rates without seeking voter approval. “Five board members will decide what projects to pursue and how much to tax with no further input,” Surrette said.
Paula Stokes of Twisp said she opposes the recreation district but is a candidate for the district commission, “because I want to keep everyone honest.” She asked the meeting organizers why other candidates weren’t invited to participate.
“This meeting was organized by the Friends of the Recreation District,” explained Lucas. A second meeting sponsored by FORD and featuring candidates endorsed by the organization is schedule for Thursday (March 20) at 6:30 p.m. at the Winthrop Ice & Sports Rink.
A public forum to which all 13 candidates are invited is scheduled for March 27 at 6:30 p.m. in the Twisp Valley Grange. The meeting is arranged in partnership with the Twisp and Winthrop chambers of commerce.
Ballots for the special election will be mailed during the first week of April to residents living within the Methow Valley School District boundaries, which extends from Mazama to Gold Creek. Ballots must be returned by April 22.