Beginning April 4, voters will decide both if we will have a recreation district and, if so, who will be running it
By Ann McCreary
Whether a proposal to create a new Methow Valley Recreation District succeeds or fails, it certainly won’t be for lack of interest among valley residents.
Three recent public meetings have drawn capacity crowds to learn about and debate the idea of creating a special taxing district that would raise money for recreation projects and programs in the Methow Valley.
Thirteen local residents are running for five at-large positions on a commission that would oversee the district. The proposal has people who have never read a state statute scrutinizing RCWs related to recreation districts.
Ballots for the special election will be mailed Thursday (April 3), and must be returned to the Okanogan County Auditor on or before April 22. The measure will be voted on by residents living within the boundaries of the Methow Valley School District, which extends from Mazama to Gold Creek.
Voters will also choose five commissioners to run the district if it passes.
The proposition was placed on the ballot through a citizen petition, signed by more than 800 valley voters, submitted to the county last winter by local residents seeking a way to provide reliable funding to support existing facilities and expand recreational opportunities.
Here are some of the key issues, as described by district backers and opponents:
Need for a recreation district
Proponents say recreation is an economic generator for the Methow Valley, and therefore benefits the entire valley. The towns of Winthrop and Twisp aren’t financially capable of providing adequate support for existing and proposed recreation projects in their jurisdictions, such as the Wagner Memorial Pool, the Winthrop Ice & Sports Rink, the Susie Stephens Trail and the proposed community trail in Twisp. A new taxing district would provide sustainable funding for those projects and spread the burden of support more equitably among valley residents who use recreational amenities.
Opponents say there are other ways to address recreational needs, specifically through Okanogan County’s recreation plan. They say many of the valley’s existing recreational amenities were created through volunteer efforts and private contributions. Creating a new recreation district would be adding an unnecessary layer of government, opponents contend. Some district opponents assert that recreational facilities and programs should be paid for by the people who use them.
Proponents say they chose to form a district under RCW 35.61, Metropolitan Park District, because that statute allows tax revenues to be collected in time to be used as a match for existing projects that have state funding with a time limit for completion. The Metropolitan Park District statute provides more local control because it does not involve county commissioners in holding public hearings and setting district boundaries.
Opponents say the Metropolitan Park District model is the wrong approach because it was designed for large, metropolitan areas; would create another layer of government; has too much potential power; would impose additional taxes and potentially make voters less likely to support other tax measures such as school, fire district and EMS levies. Some residents contend a different statute, RCW 36.69, Park and Recreation District, would be a more appropriate approach, in part because tax levies would be limited to a six-year period and would require voter approval.
Powers of the recreation district
Proponents say the work of the recreation district would be accomplished primarily through contracts with other agencies and organizations to provide recreation services, programs and projects. They say the district would not own and operate facilities and programs, and would have a minimal staff. Commission candidates endorsed by Friends of the Recreation District (FORD) have pledged, among other things, to support a limited budget during the first year of operations and set a tax rate less than the allowed 75 cents per $1,000 assessed valuation; oppose any condemnation proceedings by the district; not accept payment for serving as a commissioner; and support an extensive application process for funding and full transparency in negotiating interlocal agreements with public agencies.
Opponents are uneasy about the statutory powers vested in the district and the commissioners who would oversee it. The district would have many of the same powers as other public agencies. These include the power to set tax rates up to 75 cents per $1,000 assessed valuation without voter approval; to acquire property through purchase, annexation and eminent domain; to issue general obligation and revenue bonds; to hire employees; and to compensate commissioners up to $8,640 per year. While candidates endorsed by FORD have pledged not to exercise those powers to their full extent, opponents say there is no guarantee that future commissioners won’t do so.
Proponents say a tax rate of 10 – 20 cents per $1,000 of valuation in the Methow Valley School District would raise about $127,000 – $255,000 for recreation projects. That tax would equal $20 – $40 in taxes per year on a $200,000 home. Proponents argue that reliable funding could lower fees charged for youth sports programs and public recreational facilities; expand access and make recreation more affordable for residents with limited incomes; and generate new revenue as a result of increased tourism.
Opponents say if the full allowable tax were levied, it would result in annual tax revenues of $958,188, and a tax of $150 on a $200,000 home. They say they are concerned about the district’s ability to incur millions of dollars in debt. The property tax is unfair to people with second homes in the Methow Valley who aren’t registered to vote here, opponents say. They also argue that people with limited incomes can’t afford any additional taxes, and there are many unmet social needs in the Methow Valley that should be addressed before recreation.
For more of our in-depth coverage on the proposed Methow Valley Recreation District, see this week’s (April 2) related stories, editorials and letters: Candidates’ forum draws packed house, On the record: Recreation district commission candidates have their say, Editorials, My turn: Pro, My turn: Con, Letters to the Editor, and the somewhat related: County commissioners reorganize county fair and recreation boards