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APRC considers tax levy to fund parks

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The Ashland Parks and Recreation Commission considered a proposal Wednesday from parks Director Michael Black to explore a tax levy to fund APRC operations, and to proceed with evaluating the feasibility of forming a Parks and Recreation District.

The APRC study session Wednesday focused on longterm funding options for the department, which the City Council is slated to revisit Dec. 6.

Councilors will continue to consider APRC’s future funding in the context of structural imbalance across the general fund, and a commitment to identify at least $1 million in reductions or new revenue over the next two years.

The city budget provides funding for APRC through this biennium, but the next biennium is uncertain, Black said.

A levy could help the department “get back to what the charter intended,” Black said, by establishing funding for APRC separate from the general fund and eliminating budget competition with police and fire, for example.

“The voters who elected to adopt the charter in 1908 wanted the parks commissioners to be elected separately and their funding to be separate from the rest of the city to prevent competition for those funds,” Black said.

After voters passed Measure 50 in 1997, which greatly changed the property tax system in Oregon, Park funds were lumped back into one competitive pot.

If approved as a spring ballot item by the City Council, adopting a levy would require a public vote and would last five years before requiring renewal. Once approved, a district maintains a permanent tax rate, he said.

“A levy, I think, would be a stepping stone on the way to creating a district,” Black said. “I don’t look at this as splitting off to increase people’s taxes so that they can support parks and recreation, but more separating those funds from the city so that the parks and recreation commissioners truly do have control and management of those funds.”

Black said motivation behind his proposal was twofold — first, insufficient funds across the board force the City Council to weigh essential and nonessential services, putting funding recipients in competition with each other.

Second, “if we don’t come up with a solution, we will have to accept the solution that is given to us,” Black said. “What I’m trying to do is get the Parks Commission in a position where we’re not going into this City Council meeting Dec. 6 and hearing how the City Council proposes your budget to be resolved; we are coming to the City Council saying, ‘We think that this is a viable solution to this situation.’”

General consensus among the commission was that any refashioning of funding sources should seek to maintain service levels achieved with the historically typical rate of $2.09 per $1,000 of assessed property value, not to increase funding or grow the department.

The APRC funding rate dropped to $1.89 per $1,000 in 2018, leading to the elimination of staff positions, impacted water access for parks and restricted maintenance capacity, according to Black.

“We’re not asking for anything over and above what we have had in the past. This isn’t trying to increase revenue, this is just trying to make us whole from what we did for decades,” said Commissioner Jim Lewis. “We ran a very top-notch park system with that amount of millage.”

On Nov. 10, the commission will vote whether to direct staff to pursue a tax levy and/or a special taxing district to fund APRC operations.