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Tax bill for parks just keeps rising

Voters will decide a $5.7 million levy – a 16 percent hike – Feb. 3.

A new ball field here, a new playground there. Leaky roofs over some buildings, and soaring insurance costs for the workers inside.

Put a dollar figure for maintenance, repair or general overhead on each of those items, and soon you’re talking about real money.

Real tax money.

The Bainbridge Island Park and Recreation District board is expected to sign off Thursday on a two-year, $5.709 million property tax levy to go before voters on Feb. 3.

The levy would represent a 16 percent increase over the one approved by island voters just two years ago. But after an unusually exhaustive review of district operations, park board members say the increase is largely beyond their control.

“We can’t help the fact that cost of living has increased, and we can’t ask the district to continue without taking into account inflation,” said Dave Shorett, park commissioner.

The district is funded on a two-year levy cycle, with revenues collected the first year to fund operations for the biennium.

Even the projected tax hike is not enough to keep up with needs, and several events and programs will likely go to the wayside.

The plug is being pulled on the summer Outdoor Music and Arts Festival, while the Toe Jam Hill half-marathon will not get out of the blocks unless another organization steps forward to sound the gun.

In both cases, district programmers say funds and staff time could be better devoted to other areas.

The marathon, sports supervisor Jean Welch told the board, generally draws participants from off-island and does not cover costs.

“If I raise the (entrance) fee any more, it’s going to make people go away,” Welch told the board at last week’s meeting.

The district is also likely to end its support of the school district’s swim classes for grades 1-3. Youths in that age group will instead be able to take lessons on their own at the new pool, as many apparently have already started to do.

Total savings for the elimination of those three programs: $41,000 over two years.

That money gave the board some latitude to boost support for both the Senior Center and the Teen Center, with $65,000 pledged to increase the directorships of both organizations to full-time.

New costs

But new needs don’t stop there, with higher maintenance costs driven somewhat by park amenities built at the behest of user groups.

The reconfiguration of the Hidden Cove ball fields to include another regulation diamond means another $15,000 in water bills in 2005-06, while land being added under the city open space program also brings ongoing costs.

To meet new and current demands, the district will add a new full-time grounds worker to the staff ($88,000 salary and benefits over two years).

Park commissioners have been frustrated by higher-than-expected subsidies at the Bainbridge Aquatic Center, and the upward surge in insurance costs for district employees – 26 percent per year.

District director Terry Lande has also sought funds for some long-deferred maintenance. At least four buildings need roof repairs, he said, for which there has been no funding.

“The (current) budget doesn’t allow you to be proactive,” Lande said. “You’re responding to emergencies.”

There is growing agreement on the board that as community groups ask for new amenities – ball diamonds, playgrounds, trails – those groups should be asked to contribute not just capital funds for development, but also money for upkeep.

“If we go into (a new project), we have to be conscious that it’s going to cost us a certain amount of money each year,” park commissioner Kirk Robinson said. “What is an organization, whether it’s the horse people or Little League or a soccer group, willing to pony up for ongoing maintenance?”

Said Lande: “Most of those are great ideas, and you’d like to see most of them get done. But they do stretch the staff, and eventually the rubber band does break.”

New revenue

Near-term, commissioners have directed district staff to look at new revenue sources; all options are on the table, from class fees hikes, to reclaiming vending revenues that are now given to various youth organizations.

Officials have also discussed imposing user fees on youth sports leagues that play on district ball fields. While such groups typically contribute time to field upkeep, the district does not currently charge for field use up-front.

The district is also looking at a new revenue source for capital projects, with a park impact fee for new facilities now under consideration by the City Council.

Commissioners have given cursory discussion to changing to “metropolitan” park district status, to set a base levy rate that would continue without going back to the voters every two years.

But the notion would require support at the polls, and has yet to gain a constituency within the board.

None of those options will be resolved before voters decide the next levy, mail-out ballots for which go out in just a few weeks.

Shorett said that after personnel-related costs over which the district has little control, the 2005-06 budget additions are few.

“It really comes down to the other three (areas): the needs of teenagers, the needs of seniors, and the maintannce needs of the parks,” Shorett said. “I think the public will accept the fact that no other governmental agency is going to provide for needs of seniors and teens like we are.

“We’ve also heard from a lot of people who say they’d like to see increased maintenance of the parks, and we’re going to do that.”

Even with a 16 percent levy increase, the district would not have any contingency funds. The budget projects of fund balance of zero – as in, no funds – when the following levy cycle kicks in 2007.

With no reserves, Lande conceded that the district will be left to the caprice of costs that it really can’t foresee.

“The part that’s worrisome is that you don’t know what ‘05 and ‘06 really will bring in insurance and utilities, and the adjustments you’ll have to make,” he said.

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