Would create taxing entity to support new swimming pool in Twisp
Voters in the Methow Valley will decide in November whether they want to create a special taxing district to fund a new local indoor swimming facility.
Enough signatures were gathered to place a proposition on the Nov. 7 election ballot that would establish a “Methow Aquatics District,” which would have authority to levy property taxes to support an aquatics center.
The proposition asks voters to approve formation of a metropolitan park district (chapter 35.61 RCW) “to develop, construct, operate, and maintain the Methow Aquatics Center and related existing and future facilities,” according to the text of the measure.
The district could levy property taxes up to 75 cents per $1,000 assessed value, and the district boundaries would the same as the Methow Valley School District. The district would be created by a simple majority vote in November.
The campaign for a new indoor swimming facility is being led by Friends of the Pool, which gathered more than 1,200 signatures on petitions to put the Methow Aquatics District measure before voters. Friends of the Pool needed to gather a minimum of 800 signatures by Aug. 1 to qualify the measure for the ballot, but turned the petitions in to the Okanogan County Auditor in mid-July after gathering considerably more signatures than required.
The county auditor’s certification that the proposition had received enough signatures to bring the proposal to a vote was a pivotal step for supporters of the Methow Aquatics Center, said Justin Porter, who is leading a Friends of the Pool task force on the aquatics center.
“It was a goosebumps kind of moment to know we got the signatures,” Porter said. “Our work was to get to this moment … after thousands of hours of work and thousands of dollars spent.”
Now that the proposal will appear on the ballot, Friends of the Pool will be working to convince voters that the benefits of a year-round indoor swimming pool will be worth the taxes that property owners will pay to fund it, Porter said.
“It is so valuable to have us make a decision as a community. So many decisions in our community are made by a select few. This is our opportunity as a community to say we value aquatics, we value the safety and opportunities a pool brings to our community,” Porter said.
“We know we’re asking the voters a lot in approving this district, but it’s what’s required to replace the Wagner Pool with a year-round indoor facility,” Porter said.
Friends of the Pool was formed about 20 years ago as a group of community members who raised money — almost $400,000 over the years — to help pay for repairs and operations of the Wagner Memorial Pool, operated by the Town of Twisp. The nonprofit organization shifted priorities to developing a new facility after it became clear several years ago that the 56-year-old Wagner pool was deteriorating beyond repair.
In addition to continuing to contribute money to keep the Wagner pool open in the summer, Friends of the Pool began exploring the concept of building a new swimming pool. A donation from the Philadelphia Foundation, which supports community-based philanthropic causes, helped Friends of the Pool hire a recreation consulting firm — Ballard*King and Associates — to conduct a feasibility study that was completed in February of this year. The report can be found on the Friends of the Pool website, foptwisp.org.
Community meetings were held in 2021 and 2022 as part of the study. Based on public comment and consultant’s findings, Friends of the Pool decided to pursue a year-round aquatics facility with operations funded through a special purpose district.
The design concept for the facility that emerged from the feasibility study and public input envisions two swimming pools in a building with retracting, insulated garage-type doors that can be closed during cold or inclement weather, including wildfire smoke events, or opened to the outdoors.
One pool would be a six-lane competition pool for swim team and lap swimming, and the other pool would be shallower and warmer for swim lessons, exercise classes, and recreational swimming.
The facility would include a multi-purpose room, changing rooms, an indoor hot tub and an outdoor splash pad. Plans call for the aquatics center to be located in Twisp, at a new site, because of its central location in the valley and larger population, and the ability of children to walk or bike to the facility.
The financial analysis by Ballard*King and Associates estimates cost of constructing the proposed facility to be in the vicinity of $20 million.
Revenues raised by the metropolitan park district, if approved by voters in November, would be intended primarily for operations and maintenance of the Methow Aquatics Center, rather than construction costs, according to Friends of the Pool.
Ensuring a secure source of future operating funds will be needed to the obtain private and public funding that Friends of the Pool says it would seek for construction, Porter said.
The Methow Aquatics District would have the power to issue general obligation debt for pool construction. In the feasibility study, consultants said the pool “will likely be funded through a range of public, private and philanthropic funding sources, but it is likely that debt issued by the MPD (metropolitan park district) will be a prominent source of capital.”
Friends of the Pool has said it will work to fund capital costs through donations and grants to minimize the amount of debt required to build the aquatics center.
“The metropolitan park district, like all recreation districts in Washington state, has the ability for voter-approved debt and non-voter-approved debt,” Porter said. “Our hope is to have a robust and successful capital campaign and ask very little of voters in the future. We plan to go to grant funders and donors” for construction funding, he said.
While the district would have the power to levy up to 75 cents per $1,000 assessed value, consultants estimated that about half that amount — 38 cents per $1,000 of assessed value — would be needed to cover the aquatics center annual operating costs, which were projected to be about $600,000 annually for the proposed indoor swimming facility.
At that levy rate for operating expenses, the district could issue a bond of between $7.4 million and $8 million to “max out” the combined debt and operating expenses using the full 75 cents/$1,000 assessed value levy capacity, consultants said.
Levy rates would also be impacted by changes resulting from growth in assessed value and the amount of new construction that occur in the district over time, consultants noted.
The commissioners of the district would be responsible for setting tax levy rates based on actual operating costs and any debt incurred. The district’s maximum levy of 75 cents per $1,000 assessed property value would equal about $375 per year for a $500,000 home or $525 for a $700,000 home.
In recent weeks, questions and opposition related to the Methow Aquatics District proposition have surfaced through social media and letters to the Methow Valley News.
“We knew this was going to happen. We knew people were going to have things to say about it,” Porter said. “It’s our job to educate and communicate how we came to this decision … why we selected the metropolitan park district.”
Porter said Friends of the Pool representatives are talking with people in person or by mail and phone to respond to questions. He said people interested in discussing the proposition can email email@example.com, or call or text (509) 593-3848.
Questions and concerns expressed recently focus on various issues including uncertainty about how large the tax levy might be; the impact of new taxes on lower-income residents; whether a facility that is funded by property owners only is equitable; the permanence and power of a new aquatics district; the type of recreation district chosen to operate an aquatics center; and whether the district would be accountable to voters.
Porter said Friends of the Pool has worked to keep the community informed about the planning process since it began with community surveys in 2019. “We really tried, and I think were successful in engaging with the community and sharing their voice,” he said.
Based on consultant’s recommendations, Friends of the Pool chose to pursue creation of a metropolitan park district — one of three types of recreation districts provided by state law — in part because it provided for a district that is very specific in “purpose and scope,” Porter said.
The other two forms of recreation districts require voter approval to renew the district every six years. Because the metropolitan park district does not require voter renewal every six years, it would “assure grant funders and donors that we have a sustainable plan,” Porter said.
The proposition for the aquatics district stipulates that it would not have the power to acquire land through eminent domain, which is normally a power of metropolitan park districts, he said.
The Methow Aquatics District would be governed by a five-member board of commissioners whose members would be include members of the Twisp and Winthrop town councils and the Okanogan commission, and two at-large members appointed by each town council. The towns and county would enter into an interlocal agreement for governance of the aquatics district.
Some community members have questioned whether an appointed board would be as accountable as an elected board, Porter said.
“We are utilizing a really common form of governance, an interlocal agreement. It includes three elected officials, so there is accountability to voters,” Porter said. “It’s like our EMS district. No one votes for EMS commissioners, and it works,” he said.
“Additionally, the aquatics district would be required to form a citizen advisory committee to work with the commissioners on formulating the plan moving forward,” Porter said. “This is a place where many community members can have a meaningful part in the process.”
Porter acknowledged that the amount of the tax levy won’t be known until after the district is created and the financial requirements of building and operating an aquatics center are known, although the levy cannot exceed 75 cents per $1,000 assessed valuation.
In his view, the uncertainty is outweighed by the prospect of losing the chance to replace the Wagner pool with a year-round swimming facility.
“We’ve done our due diligence to figure this out,” Porter said. “It is a big ask of the voters. This is our opportunity as a community to do this. There is no one coming behind us to fix the pool. I really don’t see a sustainable future for aquatics in the Methow Valley if this doesn’t pass.”