Valley voters reject aquatics district by more than 2-1 margin
After Methow Valley voters last week rejected a new taxing district to build and operate a swimming pool, backers of the proposal said “there is no clear path forward” for a new pool in the valley.
“We’re going to regroup,” Bo Thrasher, co-chair of Friends of the Pool, said after the Nov. 7 election results showed the Methow Aquatics District proposition being defeated by a more than 2-1 margin.
With some votes still being counted, the most recent tally was 1,033 votes (30.89%) in favor and 2,311 votes (69.11%) opposed to the proposition that would have created a metropolitan park district to levy taxes for a proposed aquatics facility.
The election results were “resounding,” Thrasher said. She said Friends of the Pool, which led the campaign for the district creation, would need time to figure out its next steps. Pool proponents would probably meet again after the beginning of the new year, she said.
“We worked hard. We’re thankful for the support and feedback,” Thrasher said.
Friends of the Pool will be open to “new ideas and working with new people,” Thrasher said. “We’re looking forward to creating a solution that works best for the community.”
In an email sent to supporters after the election, Friends of the Pool said that with the failure of the Methow Aquatics District proposition, “a governing body and sustainable operating funding for a new facility has no clear path forward.”
Friends of the Pool will continue to support the existing Wagner Pool in Twisp, as it has for almost 20 years, “as long as the Town of Twisp chooses to sustain it,” according to the email from the organization.
Based on a feasibility study and public input, Friends of the Pool advocated for an indoor facility that would provide year-round swimming. A conceptual design by consultants proposed a competition pool and smaller recreation pool in an enclosed building, estimated to cost about $21 million.
Friends of the Pool said the primary purpose of the district would be to provide operating funds. They said a secure funding source for operations and maintenance [the taxing district] needed to be in place before a fundraising campaign for construction was launched.
The proposed metropolitan park district would have provided funding “to develop, construct, operate, and maintain the Methow Aquatics Center and related existing and future facilities,” according to the ballot proposition.
The district would have been able to levy regular property taxes up to 75 cents per $1,000 assessed value, and issue bonds. The boundaries of the proposed district were the same as the Methow Valley School District.
Too many questions
Opponents of the metropolitan park district said too many aspects of the proposed district were unknown, including the tax rate, how the governing board members would be selected, and the design, cost and financing of a swimming facility. They said voters were being asked to approve “a blank check” for a new, permanent taxing entity without knowing the specifics of the facility it would support.
Ray Peterson, a Winthrop resident, led the opposition through a website and social media, and yard signs that urged voters to vote no on the metropolitan park district. Peterson and others argued that this type of taxing district would not be accountable to voters because the board is not directly elected, and district tax levies would not need voter approval every six years, as required in other types of park and recreation districts.
Peterson advocated for finding another way to fund a swimming facility, such as sales taxes. Two days after the election, he sent an email to the mayors of Twisp and Winthrop, urging them to explore the idea of a “public facilities district.”
“RCW 35.57 allows towns to create their own public facilities districts and initiate a 0.2% sales tax add-on to support projects. Pasco recently did this to build a pool facility,” Peterson said in his email, which he shared with the Methow Valley News.
He suggested that the towns could each create a public facilities district and combine the sales tax funds through an interlocal agreement to support a pool, and perhaps other valley facilities like the skating rink and library.
Peterson has also pointed to the town of Tonasket as an example for funding a new pool. Community members there formed a nonprofit organization that raised money for construction of a $1 million seasonal pool that opened in 2017, and voters subsequently approved a parks and recreation district to fund maintenance of the pool and city parks.
The Methow Aquatics District proposition became contentious, much like a similar proposal to create a metropolitan park district in 2014. That proposition, which would have supported the swimming pool, trails and other facilities, was defeated by an even larger margin of 78% “no” to 22% “yes.”
Discussions about funding for recreation lost momentum after that election, until about four years ago when Friends of the Pool began holding community meetings about a new pool.
The 56-year-old Wagner Memorial pool in Twisp, which is maintained by the town, has deteriorated beyond repair, according to consultants hired in 2019 to evaluate the pool. A maintenance fund created by the Wagner family, for which the pool is named, is nearly depleted. Friends of the Pool has raised about $400,000 over the years to supplement the town’s pool budget and help pay for repairs and operations.
Looking toward a future facility, Friends of the Pool hosted community meetings in 2019 and received a grant in 2021 to hire a recreation consulting firm to conduct a feasibility study. Community input gathered during the study favored an indoor, year-round swimming facility. Consultants analyzed construction and operation costs and developed conceptual designs for an aquatics center. They also advised on potential sources of funding.
Friends of the Pool opted for a metropolitan park district to fund an aquatics center and gathered about 1,200 signatures earlier this year to qualify the proposition for the November ballot, although it appears that just over 1,000 voters ended up supporting the idea.