South Whidbey Parks and Recreation District officials continued a discussion last week of a possible ballot measure that would fundamentally alter its constitution by transitioning to a “metropolitan” designation.
Director Doug Coutts said he initially proposed the idea because it would allow commissioners and staff to plan further ahead with a set budget for maintenance and operations, which would stay constant for more than six years.
At a regular business meeting Wednesday evening, commissioners and Coutts took public comment and answered questions on the matter.
Lou Malzone, a Freeland resident, noted that he had reviewed state law and had not found any language that says a district could move to place a measure on the ballot on its own, that it could only do so via a public petition. Malzone said the petition would require at least 15 percent of registered voters in the area.
According to Director Doug Coutts, however, other parks districts have made the decision internally. He said that, prior to moving forward or spending any money, he would consult with those districts to see what steps they had taken.
He added that he had also spoken with the district’s attorneys, who offered their advice on the matter free of charge.
“Your point is well taken,” Coutts said.
Malzone is an elected official, serving his first term as a Freeland Water and Sewer District commissioner. He was not there representing the sewer district as an elected official.
Commissioner Mark Helpenstell noted that he agreed with Malzone that much consideration and gathering of public input would be required prior to the parks district’s placing the measure on a ballot.
Commissioner Matt Simms added that the commissioners had only heard mention of the proposal at their business meeting the month prior and had reviewed a list of pros and cons, and differentiations between the metropolitan versus regular parks districts.
One of the biggest differences between the two, as noted at the March meeting, is the increased fiscal capacity and flexibility with a metropolitan parks district.
Metropolitan parks districts have a higher maximum tax levy of 75 cents per $1,000 dollars of assessed value versus the regular parks and recreation district’s 60 cents per $1,000 of assessed value.
Park and recreation districts and service areas are required to request funds for maintenance and operations with a public ballot measure for a tax levy at least every six years. According to Coutts, if the district decides to transition to a metropolitan designation it would need voter approval for the change, but it would not need its OK for an amount. A “yes” vote would authorize the district to set its own rate each year, up to 75 cents per assessed value. Coutts said, however, that if the commissioners agreed to move forward that staff would recommend a ballot measure that voluntarily sets a rate, limiting its ability to make any increases greater than state allowed 1 percent annual hikes without going back to voters.
The district’s existing rate is set at 18 cents per $1,000 of assessed value. A proposal put before voters would likely be similar, Coutts said.
Under its current designation, commissioners serve four-year terms. Under the metropolitan park district designation, commissioners would serve for six years.
Coutts said the benefit to the public would be that the district would spend less money on elections.
In an email sent to commissioners, Coutts and The Record on Thursday, Malzone wrote that he had consulted with Island County Budget Director Elaine Marlow on the matter, and that she had confirmed the district could likely need Island County and Langley’s approval with a resolution to place the issue on a ballot.
He added that Marlow advised that the district’s board of commissioners may authorize Coutts to seek legal counsel on whether or not the expense of putting the measure on a ballot could come from district coffers.
Malzone also reminded district officials that they cannot legally advocate for or against a ballot issue. Any advocacy and subsequent funding must be done through a support group. No parks district funds or property may be used in this effort.
Marlow was on vacation Monday and her comments could not be verified, but Coutts confirmed in an email Monday afternoon that the motion to have the measure placed on the ballot would require a resolution from the Island County commissioners and the Langley City Council.
In a later phone interview, Malzone said the parks board should demonstrate they have community support for the change prior to moving forward.
“You should have your support group before you go to the county,” he said. “They have to show they have community support.”
John Demeyer, recreation services director at Bainbridge Island Metropolitan Parks District, said that when his district decided to request a ballot measure, they had the option of either asking for a resolution from the city or gathering a petition. They chose the petition method, and gathered 3,000 signatures in order to have the measure placed on the ballot.
Bainbridge voters OK’d the switch in 2004.
Demeyer also said that the Bainbridge Island Metropolitan Parks District stated on the ballot measure that their rate per $1,000 of assessed value would be up to 75 cents.
The district also named the five seats of the potential metropolitan parks district commissioners as a part of the measure.
In regard to not naming a more specific rate per $1,000 of assessed value, Demeyer said the commissioners “didn’t think the work from the previous parks and recreation district should tie the hands of the new metropolitan parks district.”
Kingston and North Bend parks districts also made the transition after voter approval, but did not specify an exact amount.
“The board is still discussing this, it isn’t something that is imminent in any way, shape or form,” Coutts said.
The South Whidbey Parks and Recreation District board of commissioners will meet again at 6 p.m. Wednesday, May 20.