Council hears from consultant on formation of parks district

November 21, 2012 01:24 pm

City might put creation of taxing district before voters

Still exploring ways to shore up general fund revenues, the La Grande City Council heard a presentation Monday about options for parks system funding.

The council may put the question of formation of a parks and recreation taxing district before voters, though the idea hasn’t gotten past the talking stage yet. In a work session at City Hall Monday night, the council and its parks and recreation district formation working group listened as Todd Chase, a consultant with FCS Group, told about services his company offers. Chase also talked about challenges the city would have to overcome in solving fiscal problems.

The council invited Chase to the session because it is thinking about hiring a consultant to help guide the parks and recreation district to the ballot. City Manager Robert Strope cautioned at the outset that a decision to hire hasn’t been made.

“Todd came with the understanding that no decision has been made, and he understands he will get no preferential treatment,” Strope said.

FCS Group, with offices in Portland, Redmond, Wash., and San Francisco, consults with public agencies on district formations, system development charges, economic analysis and cost studies and performance reviews. In opening  remarks, Chase said the company helped La Grande develop a system development charge several years ago.

He said the current challenge for La Grande is to fund a net $350,000 operations and maintenance gap, plus capital needs. He said several factors complicate matters, including that La Grande is a small city with some tax exempt landowners.

Chase said general fund and state shared tax revenue fund growth is expected to be slow, while competition for general fund money will continue. The city has limited dedicated fund options for parks, but at the same time the public expects the city to maintain and enhance the quality of parks and Veterans Memorial Pool. 

Parks, Chase said, are a valued community asset.

“People often take them for granted, but they’re right at the top of the list of what people look for in a community,” he said. “Having these facilities close in is a real amenity for people who live here.”

Chase said the funding problem is a difficult one to solve, given that La Grande is a relatively small community seeing little economic growth.

“There’s not a lot of money flowing in,” he said.

Though the council and working group have focused their discussions on formation of a taxing district, Chase said there are numerous other fund-raising options. One of those would be a parks utility fee similar to the city’s road and storm water fees. Chase said such a fee could be implemented by ordinance, or by a vote of the people.

The consultant said some money might be raised by updating the city’s system development charge, a $525 fee that is charged to new property developments. Since development has been slow in the community, Chase said the SDC likely wouldn’t bring in much new revenue.

In other options, Chase said the city might implement new user fees, local improvement districts or franchise fees.

City council work sessions are informal meetings in which the council gathers input and suggestion from staff and others. Formal action is not taken during work sessions. 

In talk following Chase’s presentation, the council and working group members agreed that the city needs to work closely with the public on the parks funding issue.

“One thing I got was that there are other options, things we could approve through the council or through a vote,” said Councilor Jerry Sebestyen. “If we’re going to do something needing voter approval, we’ll need some kind of education program.”

Mayor Daniel Pokorney said he is reluctant at this stage to spend money on consulting services. 

“Ultimately the council will have to vote to spend the money, and I don’t have any appetite for spending money on something’s that’s not going to work,” he said.

Strope suggested a public opinion survey on district formation.

“If there was positive feedback, we’d bring out a public relations piece that would culminate in an election,” he said.