By Ann McCreary
Proponents of creating a new recreation district in the Methow Valley fielded pointed questions and explained what they see as benefits of the proposed special taxing district during a meeting last week at the Winthrop Ice & Sports Rink.
The meeting hosted Thursday (March 20) by Friends of the Recreation District (FORD) packed the room and focused on questions about the way the special taxing district — called a Metropolitan Parks District — would be structured and the powers of the commission that would oversee the district.
The proposed Methow Valley Recreation District would have the same boundaries as the Methow Valley School District. It would raise money for recreation projects and programs through a property tax, and would be overseen by a five-member commission. Ballots will be mailed next week and must be returned by April 22.
Three of five candidates promoted by FORD were on hand at last week’s meeting to answer questions, along with Fred Wert and Jay Lucas, valley residents who helped gather signatures to put the proposal on the special election ballot next month.
Eight other valley residents are running for the recreation district commission, and five of them are affiliated with a group opposing creation of the district called Methow Recreation District Choices.
“Our vision,” Lucas said at the meeting, “is not a bureaucracy, not hiring people other than clerical and possibly a part-time attorney to deal with contracts. The district would be a funding agency … commissioners would get input from people on what they want.”
Similar to a meeting hosted by district proponents the previous week in Mazama, many questions focused on concerns about powers held by the district commission under the statute, including the ability to levy up to 75 cents per $1,000 of assessed valuation; to condemn property through eminent domain; to compensate commission members up to $8,640 per year; and to issue general obligation bonds.
Candidates on the FORD slate have said they would support an initial tax levy of about 10 to 20 cents per $1,000 of assessed valuation; would not use eminent domain powers and would not accept compensation.
Candidates Camden Shaw, Julie Palm and Kevin van Bueren said that as commissioners they would seek community input to guide decisions about what projects to fund with revenues gathered through a new property tax levied by the district. Maintenance of existing facilities, such as the Winthrop ice rink and Wagner Memorial Pool in Twisp, would be among the priorities, they said.
Asked how they would get public input about what projects to fund, the candidates said the commission meetings would be open to the public.
“There is a whole year before the money comes in to get feedback,” van Bueren said.
Michael Brady, a Winthrop attorney, said he had read the statute for a Metropolitan Parks District, RCW 35.61, and concluded that this particular statute would not allow the district to act primarily as a funding organization, as envisioned by proponents.
“I’m hearing you say you’ll use the parks district as a funding mechanism, which is a power you don’t have,” Brady said. “RCW Chapter 35.61 … creates a political entity that has all the powers of a city … I don’t see anything that says the district has the ability to fund someone else’s facilities.”
Wert said district advocates had consulted with an attorney regarding using RCW 35.61 as the vehicle to establish a recreation district. Other Metropolitan Parks Districts have contracts and interlocal agreements to support recreation, Wert said.
When asked who the proponents had consulted for legal advice, Wert and the candidates said they could not provide that information without approval from the attorney, which drew criticism from some members of the audience.
“That’s setting a precedent of secrecy,” said Vicky Longo. “That’s not very transparent.”
Some speakers said they were confused about why proponents gathered signatures last summer under a Park and Recreation District statute — RCW 36.69 — and then withdrew that petition and gathered new signatures during the fall and winter for a petition to create a Metropolitan Parks District under RCW 35.61.
Wert said proponents hoped a new recreation district could collect tax revenues in time to provide matching funds for state grants that have been authorized for the Susie Stevens Trail and the Winthrop Ice & Sports Rink in Winthrop, as well as a potential new grant for a community trail in Twisp.
In discussions with county officials last summer, Wert said, district backers realized that deadlines applying to the Parks and Recreation statute meant that tax revenues could not be collected until 2016, which meant they would not be available to provide matching funds for the recreation projects already underway.
That statute also gave county commissioners authority to change the district boundaries, which the recreation district proponents wanted to avoid, Wert said.
Because of those issues, Wert said, petitioners never submitted the first petition to the county, choosing instead to move forward with a new petition using the Metropolitan Parks District statute, which could be placed before voters in the April special election, and did not require that county commissioners set district boundaries.
In an interview after last week’s meeting, however, attorney Brady said he questions whether the statute chosen by district proponents allows the proposition to be placed on a special election ballot by citizen petition. Brady said his reading of the statute indicates that only a “local government resolution,” not a citizen petition, can place such a proposition on a special election ballot.
“There is nothing in the general election laws of the state of Washington allowing special elections to be called by citizen petition for any purpose,” Brady said in a letter sent to the Okanogan County auditor and Deputy Prosecuting Attorney Stephen Bozarth in January.
Brady said a proposition initiated by citizen petition must be voted on in a general election in November.
“As far as we’re concerned we’re satisfied they [district proponents] followed the statutory process in getting it on the ballot,” Bozarth said in a phone interview. “My duty is limited to review of the ballot title,” and any questions regarding placing the proposition on the April special election ballot would have to be resolved “between the district and anybody that has a problem with it.”