The Milton-Freewater City Council had yet to put a local option tax on the ballot to fix the city’s sagging parks infrastructure, but members were already worried if the money would ever come.
The council unanimously approved putting a five-year, 37 cents per $1,000 in assessed value local option tax on the May ballot at a meeting Monday. The measure will raise a maximum of $100,000 per year for parks and recreation, although the city expects to collect around $80,000.
City Manager Linda Hall said there isn’t enough money in the general fund to cover all of the needs of the park system, which includes an aquatic center, an 18-hole golf course, a skate park, tennis courts, 52 acres of parks spread across 10 locations, and more.
“Funding a cop on the street or dispatch center, those have gotten the nod with dollars,” she said. “As opposed to swing sets.”
One of the priorities under the tax would be the Joe Humbert Family Aquatic Center. Hall said the bottom of the pool needs to be resurfaced to repair leaks, key equipment and features like heat pumps, the largest water slide and the staircase need to be replaced, and the bathhouse needs to be repainted.
Hall said patrons often complain about the cold water in the pool, a result of the leaks and the aging heat pumps.
“It’s hard to heat a running river,” she said.
The 20-plus-year-old aquatic center needs $230,000 to operate per season, with labor and maintenance costs rising each year.
The rest of the park system has a litany of needs as well: Yantis Park’s playground, walking trail and picnic shelters are in need of replacement or repair, Orchard Park needs power outlets for the local farmers market and the municipal golf course requires resurfaced golf cart paths and netting in addition to many other projects.
The councilors had a choice between putting a 37-cent or 46-cent local option tax on the ballot, but Hall said neither amount would totally repair the parks system.
“We have a way longer grocery list than we have grocery money,” she said.
Amongst the council, members seemed to agree that parks and recreation was in need of more parks funding.
Councilor Steve Irving said the park playgrounds weren’t meeting safety codes while Councilor Brad Humbert added that it would cost the city more in the long run to operate a pool in disrepair than it would be to fix it.
“I don’t see how we have a choice,” Humbert said.
What did give the council pause was the potential for compression, a mechanism that squeezes the general government property tax rate to $10 per $1,000 assessed value, regardless of how high the rate actually is.
If Milton-Freewater surpasses that $10, local option taxes will be the first revenue source eliminated under compression, according to an interview with Umatilla County Director of Assessment and Taxation Paul Chalmers on Tuesday.
While Milton-Freewater is generally under the compression threshold — the general government tax rate ranges between $7.76 and $7.82 within city limits — some individual properties with similar real market and assessed values are already feeling the effects of compression.
Milton-Freewater only lost about $35 to compression in 2017, but Chalmers said a flagging economy could cause a wider trend of real market and assessed values converging, putting more properties under compression.
Further complicating matters is the fact that Milton-Freewater’s local option tax proposal will share space with the vote for a new county-wide Oregon State University Extension Service taxing district, which would levy another 33 cents on Milton-Freewater residents. Many local governments try to avoid putting more than one tax measure on the same ballot so that voters don’t choose one over another.
Regardless of the obstacles, the Milton-Freewater City Council pressed ahead and voted to put the 37-cent tax on the May ballot.
Contact Antonio Sierra at firstname.lastname@example.org or 541-966-0836.