Eminent domain issue may again be a hurdle for voters
People who attended the first public meeting about a long-term funding option for Twisp’s swimming pool found themselves on familiar turf.
The meeting, held Thursday (May 30) at the Winthrop Rink, was actually the third roundtable on the Ernst O. Wagner Memorial Pool’s financial future. The first two meetings were small, announced only to specific pool proponents and people who had been involved in the 2013-14 campaign that asked voters to create a metropolitan park district — a taxing authority that would fund the pool and other recreational opportunities.
Running the May 30 meeting, Sarah Schrock, president of the fundraising organization Friends of the Pool, said the select groups at the first two meetings decided the best option for securing the pool’s future would be another run at forming a park district.
What that might look like is still unclear. Schrock said more meetings would be scheduled, and she asked for volunteers to form a steering committee that would give the idea some traction.
If the 18 who attended the May 30 meeting are to form the nucleus of a new park district movement, they will need to decide what type of district to form.
The state allows for three types of park districts. All may collect property taxes. A park and recreation district or a park and recreation service area may each collect up to 60 cents per $1,000 of assessed property value ($180 per year on a $300,000 house). A metropolitan park district may collect 75 cents per $1,000. All of them may collect additional taxes, mainly through ballot measures that require 60 percent voter approval. All have the power of eminent domain, allowing them to condemn private properties for recreational use, as long as the district pays fair market value to the unwilling seller.
The three types of park districts are detailed on the Municipal Research and Services Center website at https://bit.ly/2wB5nfK.
The 2014 metropolitan park district campaign collected signatures on a citizen petition and dangled the promise of funding the pool, Winthrop Rink or various trail projects, but none of these were mentioned on the ballot. Five elected park district commissioners would have decided everything: what gets funded, how much tax is collected, and whether eminent domain is invoked.
“I remember when the first one failed, it wasn’t clear in people’s minds what they would do with this money,” said Sandy Liman, a member of the Twisp Parks and Recreation Commission who attended the May 30 meeting.
Voters in 2014 were having none of it. They defeated the measure, 78% to 22%. Pool proponents now are focused on what they can do differently in a campaign that needs to be much better.
Opponents of the first campaign raised alarms over the district’s power of eminent domain. Winthrop Town Planner Rocklynn Culp said the significance of that issue had been exaggerated.
“Eminent domain is a bogeyman that in reality is irrelevant,” Culp said at the meeting. In practice, elected park district commissioners wouldn’t propose it, she said. But if they did, they would change their minds if the public came out in numbers to oppose the idea.
“Elected officials are responsive in a small community like this,” Culp said.
She noted that as Winthrop’s planner she was currently involved in an eminent domain action against a private property owner, to secure a 50-foot easement to bring the south end of the Susie Stephens Trail to Highway 20. This is the only eminent domain case she had seen in Winthrop, she said, and it only came after the town had attempted to communicate with the owner for 10 years with no response.
Jeanne White, former coach of the Methow Valley Killer Whales swim team, said park district proponents needed a “good campaign … respectfully including as many people as possible.” Otherwise, she said, opponents would win again with their eminent domain “scare tactic.”
“While I would certainly love to have a pool, there are people who want other things, too,” White said. “There has to be a broad discussion about what this money will be for.”
Schrock mentioned that she had heard from indoor-soccer players and pickleball enthusiasts that they would like to see a more general recreation building. Suzanne Perin, director of the Shafer Museum and another attendee at the May 30 meeting, said children should have indoor recreation options during the winter.
Need is imminent
Still, the pool’s future is in jeopardy without a major infusion of dollars. The Wagner Fund, a trust fund established by the pool’s founder in the 1960s to support pool operations, will run dry in four to six years, Schrock said.
The pool not only needs a new funding source, it also needs to be replaced. Cracks repaired during a $189,000 renovation in 2016 have not only reappeared, they’ve grown worse. Twisp Public Works Director Andrew Denham has said the 53-year-old pool is “well past its useful life.”
A park district raising the maximum property tax of 75 cents per $1,000 likely wouldn’t raise enough money to build a pool — assuming taxpayers would abide such a high tax and would want all the money spent on a pool. A park district collecting the full amount within the same boundaries as the school district would bring in $1.5 million over one-and-a-half years — roughly the cost of Tonasket’s new pool, built in 2017.
Schrock reminded those at the meeting that most of the money for construction of the Tonasket pool came from private donations — almost $1 million in all.
“I hope whatever we can dream up to keep our pool, to make it available for everybody here, is brilliant and long-lasting because the pool is a tremendous part of the community,” Liman said.
A new wrinkle was added to metropolitan park districts since the valley’s measure failed in 2014. Now, counties and cities may form a metropolitan park district that is limited to funding only specific facilities that would be named on the ballot. The ballot measure may also state a maximum tax the district would be allowed to collect, lower than the statutory limit of 75 cents per $1,000. This type of district may not be formed by citizen petition.
“It may be considerably easier to get that on the ballot without a citizen petition and with the limitation on taxing authority,” Culp said in an interview via email on Monday (June 3).
If this new, limited form of metropolitan park district were to be pursued, organizers would need to decide up front which facilities get funded.