Council gets lesson in special district formation

Written by By Bill Rautenstrauch, The Observer September 24, 2012 02:46 pm

 

By Bill Rautenstrauch
The Observer

Looking to solve budget shortfalls and make capital improvements over the next several years, the La Grande City Council took a basic lesson Monday night in how to form a special district.

Following up on a recommendation from its Long Term Budget Solutions Advisory Committee, the council may try to form a parks and recreation taxing district to help solve some of its financial problems. District structure, projected cost to taxpayers and many other issues still need to be worked out, but a first order of business is to learn the ins and outs of getting the proposal before voters.

Monday’s session, attended by council members and members of the city’s parks and recreation district committee, was a lesson in just that. Teaching was George Dunkel of the Special Districts Association of Oregon, an organization that provides a broad range of membership services to special districts throughout the state.

“I’m not here to sell you anything, nor will I come back as a consultant later. I’m simply here to talk about the process,” Dunkel told the group.

Dunkel said that under state law the process of forming a district can begin with a petition, by consent of property owners, or it can be initiated by a county board of commissioners.

 He said that if the city chooses the petition route, the petition must be filed with the county board. He added that in every case, the county board is required to hold a hearing. Citizens must be informed about the purposes of the proposed district and its boundaries.

Dunkel said county government must be involved in the process because the district would impact people living outside the city limits.

He also said that if the petition is approved and includes a permanent tax rate, an election must be held. An election also must be held if the county receives a request from 15 percent of the electors or 100 electors, whichever is less.

Dunkel said that if the city decides to forge ahead with district formation, it’s best to set a target date for the election, then work hard to meet goals. He recommended establishing an involved and enthusiastic committee that could raise money and serve as an advisory group to the council. 

The committee would play a key role also in determining financial needs and defining the district boundaries. Dunkel said that after those issues are settled, the city should take the proposal public.

“Review your costs and boundaries at public meetings. Don’t hold anything back. Right from the get-go, put that out. Find out who are the supporters and who are the opponents,” Dunkel said.

Some discussion during the meeting centered on whether the city should hire a consultant to help put the proposal together. Dunkel said it’s a good idea if money is available, but added that there are many tasks the city can do on its own.

“You have the talent in this room and the city has the staff to do the paperwork,” he said.

City Manager Robert Strope said after the meeting that the city isn’t near to making a decision on putting the question of a district to voters. 

“We’re thinking the earliest date for an election would be November 2013,” he said.

Strope said no tax rate proposals have been made, and there are a couple of ideas floating around concerning district boundaries. 

He said that while the budget solutions committee recommended that the parks and recreation district boundaries should coincide with those of the La Grande School District, other people think the parks district should encompass the entire county.

Strope said a next step for the city is to determine costs for consulting services.