Park board seeks tax boost for backlog of improvements


Ed Kemmick/Last Best News

Backers of a proposal to increase park maintenance taxes in Billings recommend making long-overdue improvements to Centennial Park next summer.

Rick DeVore and Tom Rupsis have been making the rounds of civic and business groups in recent weeks, pitching a proposal from the Billings Park, Recreation and Cemetery Board to levy new taxes to maintain and expand city parks.

They are scheduled to address their most important audience on Nov. 6, when they make the case for the tax increase at a work session of the Billings City Council, hoping the council will vote in favor of the tax increase before new council members are seated in January.

DeVore, chairman of the park board, and Rupsis, a board member, said they have been encouraged by what they’ve heard so far at their public presentations.

“We’ve not gotten any negative issues with anything we’ve brought up,” DeVore said.

Rupsis said that was no surprise, given the level of support there seems to be for additional parks and improvements to existing parks. As part of a needs assessment survey conducted for the Parks Department in 2016, more than 60 percent of respondents favored repairs to aging neighborhood parks and making improvements to the trail system, swimming pools and other water features, playgrounds and athletic fields.

Those results are included in a parks and recreation master plan posted on the park department’s website.

The same survey also showed a fair amount of support for increasing Park District 1 assessments to pay for the improvements. Only 16 percent of respondents were “not supportive” of increasing the assessment, while 47 percent were somewhat or very supportive, with 37 percent unsure.

The gist of the park board’s proposal, which it worked on for more than a year, is to increase the annual assessments to support city parks by $1 million a year, which would increase taxes on a $200,000 house by about $15 a year.

The owner of a $200,000 house already pays about $30 a year under Park District 1, which the City Council created in 2011, with the initial goal of dealing with $9 million in deferred maintenance. Since creation of the district, the City Council has voted to spend $2 million a year on parks.

Rupsis said many people seem to believe that $2 million a year is part of a council policy or is the annual spending limit. In fact, he said, the assessment is open-ended. The council could levy nothing or could go far over the $2 million a year. He said the $2 million figure was what the council thought taxpayers would support and what was needed to begin chipping away at long-unmet needs.

That money is addressing those needs, DeVore and Rupsis said, but it does nothing to deal with “life-cycle replacement” of park land and infrastructure — things like replacing  playground equipment, rebuilding tennis courts, building new bathrooms, repaving parking lots and the like.

DeVore said the department has estimated that it will need $20 million for life-cycle replacement over the next 15 years.

On top of that, the city has more than 100 acres of undeveloped parks, and many more acres of under-developed parks, plus a need for additional parks and park facilities in high-growth areas of the city. DeVore and Rupsis said the city has not developed a major, non-neighborhood park since Castle Rock Park was created in 1982, when the city’s population was 66,000.

It has also been estimated that the city will need 150 acres of new open recreation space in the next 15 years, they said.

There is no dedicated park land along the planned Inner Belt Loop and there is also a great need for more dog parks, Rupsis said, pointing out that High Sierra Park, which has a 7.5-acre dog park, is the most-used park in the city.

One major need, not envisioned for funding through Park District 1, is an indoor community recreation center.

“This has to be one of the only cities of its size without a community recreation center,” DeVore said.

Such a center has an estimated cost of $30 million, which would probably be paid for with general obligation bonds, as were the Billings Public Library and Dehler Park ballfield. But before the city goes out to ask citizens to bond that big a parks project, DeVore said, the department has to demonstrate that it can meet existing needs for new parks and parks improvements.

DeVore and Rupsis said the park board considered several different funding mechanisms, including general obligation bonds for specific projects and asking voters to increase the city mill levy.

Rupsis said the board ultimately decided to push for new assessments under Park District 1 because that plan offered the parks department the most flexibility to meet changing needs. Some private groups have come forward with plans to make improvements at specific parks, he said, and with the flexibility of this proposal, the department could quickly reallocate money if one of those parks was on its own to-do list.

In addition to asking the City Council to approve the increase assessments, the park board would like it to kickstart the improvements by making an additional $3 million available in the first year, to make some serious progress on addressing park needs.

The board suggests using up to $1 million from a fund that developers have paid into in lieu of setting aside park land in new developments. That fund contains about that much money, though there is some question as to how much of it could be used outside the areas for which the money was originally designated.

The board also recommends using $2 million to $3 million from the city’s general fund reserves, or ending fund balance, which now has about $12 million.

The proposal calls for spending $2 million next year to start developing Centennial Park, at 32nd Street West and St. Johns Avenue. The 30-acre park has sat undeveloped for 50 years, though Little League fields occupy about a third of the property, and there is an unpaved parking lot.

Rupsis said dog park supporters who were collecting money for such a park at Centennial had to give some of the donations back because no progress has been made there. The $2 million would put the park in a position to have a dog park added. Improvements would include putting in irrigation, sidewalks and paved parking lots.

In late 2018 and 2019, the board envisions making improvements at Poly Vista, Optimist and Castle Rock parks.

More information: If you want to hear the pitch from DeVore and Rupsis, you’ll have a chance on Thursday, Nov. 2, when they address the League of Women Voters. The noon meeting at the Elks Club, 934 Lewis Ave., is free and open to the public. A lunch will be available at 11:30 for $10.00.

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