Island Rec proposed levy increase endorsed by town council

Smiles and squeals of laughter highlight the ever-popular three-legged race

Island Rec will have an influential ally in its camp as it seeks voter-approval on a new six-year property tax levy, one that carries a hefty rate—more than twice what it is today.

The Friday Harbor Town Council voted without dissent and with little discussion Feb. 19 to throw its weight behind the park and recreation district levy request, which will go before voters on an April 28 special election ballot. The district’s existing levy, at 17 cents per $1,000 of assessed value, is expected to generate $305,000 in 2015 and expires at the end of the year.

“I’m happy to have this opportunity to support such a valuable asset for our community,” Councilman Farhad Ghatan said, “and hope that it might make a difference for our future.”

In a presentation to the council, Island Rec Commission Chairman Bill Cumming noted that the new would-be rate, at 38.5 cents per $1,000, consists of “three components” earmarked for separate programs and expenses; 18.5 cents for recreational programs (an 8.5-cent increase), 12 cents for the portion dedicated for the Friday Harbor High School sports program (5-cent increase), and 8 cents to offset the cost of maintaing and operating the 30-acre community park and ball fields complex on Carter Avenue.

As part of a prior pact, Island Rec would oversee the community park and sports fields under a three-way agreement with San Juan Island School District, which owns the 30-acre property, and Friday Harbor Athletic Association, which is building the ball fields via $3.4 million in private donations. Full-scale use of the ball fields and park awaits town approval on Island Rec’s plan for maintaining and operating the site, a prerequisite spelled out in the park’s conditional-use permit.

Elements of that pending plan, such as hours of operation, security, supervision and enforcement were discussed at length and in detail at the Feb. 19 council meeting.

In 2009, voters approved a 7-cent boost in the park and recreation district annual levy to prevent what appeared to be the likely elimination of sports at Friday Harbor High, and with the increase dedicated to funding for high school sports. District property owners were the beneficiary of a net-gain, however, in spite of the increase, as a school bond measure, at 60 cents per $1,000, expired that year as well.

For Island Rec, the levy hurdle is higher than it is for most. Its levy requires a minimum approval-margin of 60 percent, compared to the 50 percent required of most property-tax supported public entities. And, because its levy operates at a fixed rate, rather than a fixed amount—as is the case for most others—the revenue it generates can rise or fall depending on fluctuations in yearly property values.

The district also has financial ground to make up. It received $377,000 in excess of the amount its levy rate should have generated over a three-year period, due to a miscalculation of its levy by the county assessor, and that money must repaid. Cumming said district officials are considering issuing a bond that would help extend its repayment schedule from three years to six.

For San Juan Island’s recreation enthusiasts, the stakes are high as well. Island Rec operates three parks within town boundaries, including Eddie and Friends Dog Park and the so-called “gravel pit park,” and in 2014 it organized nearly 3,000 hours of recreation programs that drew nearly 15,000 participants.

Cumming said Island Rec supporters will be raising awareness about the levy proposal as part of an independent election campaign over the next several weeks, and that district officials will visit with local civic groups to discuss planks of the proposal and field questions. He’s confident voters understand the virtues of a well-maintained parks and recreation program, as well as the benefits of an adequately funded high school sports program.

“We’ve been very frugal with our monies and run a tight budget,” Cumming said. “We’ve done our homework, I think our numbers are good and we’re going to be totally transparent about this.”