Jim Webster: No to parks and rec tax
April 11, 2016
I confess I am a user of the Steamboat Springs parks and recreation facilities, so a recent article headlined "Will people pay to play?" got my attention. The headline was in reference to a discussion about whether Steamboat residents would vote in favor of a property tax dedicated to funding recreation facilities.
Excuse me? I already pay to play when I play tennis or golf, go to the rodeo, ice skate or ski at Howelsen. About the only thing I don't pay to use are the city parks. I have never heard of a city charging for walking in the park.
So what gives? Recreational user fees are not enough to create the financial reserves to fund capital replacements or substantive maintenance. User fees don't cover all operating costs in many cases.
As a matter of city policy, written or unwritten, public parks and recreation facilities are subsidized so all residents can afford to play, socialize and learn. This is not unusual for most communities and is sound public policy within reason.
Nevertheless, the running of the financial aspects of Steamboat's parks and recreation leaves a lot to be desired. Parks and recreation activities compete for funds with essential services such as fire and police. City Council has other matters to deal with, so it cannot give the city's recreation services a dedicated focus.
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Part of the problem is that the Parks and Recreation Commission has little power. Financial decisions are made by City Council, despite the fact the commission meets twice per month to consider the issues within its purview. City Council gives the commission lip service, as its members are not elected. As a result, future capital planning for replacing and maintaining our recreation facilities and parks is ad hoc, at best.
So what is the solution?
In my view, a dedicated property tax to fund parks and recreation with an elected Parks and Recreation Commission is not the best choice for Steamboat. While this approach does give the commission the desired accountability and power, property tax funding does not recognize that our recreation facilities exist in large part to attract visitors who generate local jobs, business and sales tax revenue.
In effect, local residents would be subsidizing visitors to use the facilities. The direct link between creating attractive recreation facilities paid for by all users (locals and visitors) would be lost if a property tax base is adopted.
A better solution would be for City Council to give the Parks and Recreation Commission the authority to do financial decision-making by allocating to it a pre-determined percentage of city sales tax revenue. For example, City Council could allocate a percentage of its sales tax revenue to the Parks and Recreation Commission for the next three to five years with a minimum and maximum funding level. There would be no need for the bureaucracy of another level of government created by a Parks and Recreation Property Tax District.
Importantly, by continuing to fund Parks and Recreation through sales tax revenue as well as user fees, it keeps a direct alignment between the investment in recreation facilities and the users — when there are more visitors, there will be more use of facilities and higher sales tax and user fees.
The Parks and Recreation Commission would be held accountable for oversight of its budgets to City Council. Council could still fill its duty to voters.
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