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Billings City Council hears options to further fund parks: levies, bonds, special districts

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Posted at 11:40 PM, Mar 16, 2021
and last updated 2021-03-17 01:40:32-04

BILLINGS — Members of the Billings City Council heard presentations at their Monday night work session detailing more robust ways to fund, maintain and operate Billings parks and trails, including bonds, levies and special districts.

The city of Billings currently has 2,600 acres of park land with about 1,100 acres considered developed with a yearly budget of $6.2 million. A developed city park is generally considered to have irrigation on its grounds.

Michael Whitaker, director of Billings parks, recreation and public lands, said his staff is overstretched because the city has incorporated new parks and development to existing parks without adding more staff or funding to care of them.

Since a parks and recreation master plan was completed in 2017, Whitaker said the city has added four new restrooms to three city parks, built four playgrounds on existing parks and added 43 acres of developed park land, constructed the Yellowstone Kelly Interpretive Site and added additional trail segments with the Skyline Trail, Ironwood Trails, Copper Ridge walkways and Annafeld trails.

Whitaker said the 2017 master plan identified staffing needs that have gone unmet for years, including an additional arborist, two heavy equipment operators, a park planner/project manager, six seasonal park attendants, a park supervisor and asset coordinator/business manager. All the unmet staffing carries a cost of about $574,000, Whitaker said.

“The city’s urban forest has grown to a point where one arborist can’t maintain safety standards. As our park land and trails inventory increases, we need two equipment operators and six seasonal park attendants to maintain current service levels," Whitaker said.

The current parks supervisor oversees 13 full-time employees and 50 seasonal employees, which is too much to handle for one person, Whitaker said. The addition of a business manager would help the department be able to better present data about costs and revenues to the Council in the future.

Whitaker said another problem the parks department faces is increasing usage of the parks. In particular, the demand for sports fields is rising. The parks department strives to meet the national standard for maintenance defined by the National Recreation and Park Association, Whitaker said. The department typically strives for level two, which is the common standard for community parks with the grass mowed weekly, aeration once per year, fertilizer once per season and pesticide application as needed. Whitaker said many of the community parks in Billings don't meet that standard, and if more resources aren't added, the parks could become unsafe for sports teams.

“The parks division strives for level 2 maintenance in all community and neighborhood parks, although maintaining this level is made challenging by the use placed on these parks. Community and neighborhood parks were never designed for the activity level being placed on them by sports teams," Whitaker said.

The city partnered with The Trust for Public Land to do work compiling financial information pertaining to parks and what options the city would have in the future for funding new parks and maintaining/developing current parks.

Trust for Public Land Research Director Wendy Muzzy detailed the pros and cons of using mill levies, general obligation bonds or revenue bonds to fund the parks.

Muzzy said raising property taxes through a mill levy would generate a significant amount of money at a relatively minimal cost per household. As the community grows, the burden on an individual taxpayer decreases, but the total amount the city brings in over time decreases with inflation. Voters also have the final say on a mill levy.

Muzzy said general obligation bonds can be used to support capital needs like park land acquisition, improvements, and facility construction. A general obligation bond can not be used for operational purposes, she said. General obligation bonds are most widely used by other cities in Montana to fund parks with Great Falls, Bozeman, Hamilton and several counties using bonds across the state, Muzzy said.

A revenue bond is backed by dedicated money from the city, funded partially by the city-wide Billings Parks District 1 (PD1). PD1 was created by the city in 2011 and generates about $1.9 million per year. The appeal of a special district like PD1 for city leaders is that the rate can be controlled by the Council without voter approval.

PD1 spending has some restrictions. The district's money can cover cemetery operations, park maintenance and planning but can't pay for recreation programs.

The current parks and recreation budget is currently split about equally between the city's general fund and PD1, with $3 million in PD1 and $3.2 million in the general fund. The idea was kicked around at the meeting to move a majority of the parks funding out of the general fund and into PD1, allowing the Council greater flexibility. It would also technically free up money in the general fund, the majority of which currently funds police and firefighting services in the city.

Another pro of moving the general fund portion of the parks budget to PD1 is that it is more sustainable. Last year, the Council was looking for every possible way to cover a $3.5 million shortfall in the budget and asked the parks department to present $1 million in proposed cuts to help with the deficit. The cuts were avoided after voters passed a public safety mill levy, which brought in an additional $4 million to the city.

The Council also heard recommendations from the appointed parks advisory board chair, Tom Rupsis.

He said the parks advisory board generally doesn't favor the shift of parks money from the general fund to PD1, due to the Council's reluctance for the past eight years to increase the PD1 assessment, which the shift of the parks department budget from the general fund would certainly do.

Rupsis presented two future funding options for the parks.

The first is a combination of a mill levy and a bond. Voters would be asked two ballot questions, one for the levy that would cover operations, maintenance and a bond that would cover park and trail development.

Initial numbers Rupsis presented for the first option had the city asking for a $45 million bond, with the owner of a home worth $200,000 paying an additional $8.69 per year in property taxes over 10 years. Over the life of the bond, taxes will have increased for the $200,000 homeowner by $175.

The second funding option Rupsis presented was an all mill levy option. The levies would be contained in one ballot question and secure permanent funding, but have a higher initial cost to the city and a slower timeline of implementation.

Rupsis's second funding option states the current parks budget at $6.2 million, $3.1 million would go to new park development, $1.3 million would go to existing operation and maintenance shortages and $1.7 million would go to additional maintenance costs.

Under the second funding option, the owner of a home worth $200,000 would pay an additional $19 per year for the first three years of the levy, with years four through 10 costing about an additional $4.27 per year. At the end of the 10-year period, the $200,000 homeowner would see a $175 increase on their property tax bill.

The presentations the Council heard were only for information. No final decision was made on parks funding at the Monday Council work session.

Rupsis said the city hasn't gone to the voters for a parks ballot initiative since 1999 and he said it's time to ask again.

“Certainly with the economic conditions we are in right now, a big ask is a non-starter. Whatever we do, we have to make sure that it increases slowly and predictably over time. We’re not going to rush out there and try to hit anybody in the pocketbook. But we also want something that is going to be sustainable and flexible with transparency and accountability built right in," Rupsis said.

In closing of the parks discussion, a few Council members had reservations about going to the voters for parks money, when the last public safety levy got the city out of its financial hole by the skin of its teeth. Council Members Shaun Brown and Pam Purinton were wary of asking for parks money after promising strides would be made in expanding public safety services.

The Council did seem to have the appetite to have The Trust for Public Lands do a survey of Billings voters to gauge their appetite for passing a levy or bond. The survey would cost about $100,000, a portion of which would be paid for by the Trust for Public Lands. No final decision was made on whether the city would purchase the survey service.

The parks and recreation department is also developing a matching grant system to give private groups an opportunity to contribute money to specific park projects. Details are still scant, but Whitaker noted his staff are working to possibly give out $250,000 per year if a community organization can match that amount.

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