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Campaign heats up for parks tax

Ken and Marsha Godfrey of Petaluma play tennis on the dilapidated courts at McNear Park.

Scott Manchester/for the Argus-Courier
Published: Monday, September 17, 2012 at 11:30 a.m.
Last Modified: Monday, September 17, 2012 at 11:30 a.m.

Whether it's a lack of ball fields, the visibly run-down playgrounds, the cracked tennis courts or a leaky roof at the community center, there appears to be no shortage of unmet park and recreational needs in Petaluma.

Facts

Measure X

Measure X funds would be spent on the following list of projects:

• $6.12 million to East Washington Park to fund the building of athletic fields, children's play areas, pedestrian and bicycle pathways.
• $2.1 million to upgrade Prince Park, including installing artificial turf fields.
• $1.3 million to upgrade the Petaluma Community Center.
• $750,000 to build playgrounds, tennis courts and other facilities at Meadow View, Arroyo, Miwok, McNear, Del Oro and Lucchesi parks.
• $500,000 to renovate the Polly Klaas Performing Arts Center, including seismic upgrades, a re-built stage, improved seating and more.
• $500,000 for work on the David Yearsley River Heritage Center.
• $350,000 to build hiking, running and biking trials in Wiseman, Westridge, Walnut and La Tercera parks, as well as near the Marina.
• $300,000 to repair and upgrade the city's two aquatics facilities, including the Cavanagh Center and the Petaluma Swim Center.

To get the job done, a grassroots group known as Petaluma Friends of Recreation has created a list of specific recreation projects that they would like to see funded by the passage of Measure X, a proposed parcel tax on the November ballot that would raise about $12 million.

“We are providing and caring for things we haven't had money to take care of,” said PFOR Co-Chair Deb Sammon, who has long been involved with Petaluma American Little League and joined PFOR about a year ago. “This is an actionable way to enact change in our town.”

The measure would create a $52 a parcel tax for single family residences, ranging to a high of $500 for owners of large apartment complexes with more than 11 units. The tax would last 15 years, through 2028.

Proceeds would finance upgrading, renovating, repairing and building eight specifically designated projects around town. It's received almost universal support from City Councilmembers but has garnered opposition from the local taxpayers association.

While the measure may sound unfamiliar to many, it's been in the works for about three years, said Co-Chair Carol Eber. At that time, she explained, various recreation and athletics groups commonly appeared before the Recreation, Music and Parks Commission to request funding for various projects. There was a great amount of need and only a small pot of money, and everyone was fighting over it, she said.

Then Parks Commissioner Mark Ferguson pulled Eber aside and suggested that the various groups come together to find a common solution to the ongoing lack of funding. Eber agreed and the two pulled together representatives from a range of groups and started discussing a variety of ways to address Petaluma's recreation needs.

After commissioning studies and surveys, the group worked with Assistant City Manager Scott Brodhun to identify a series of projects that would benefit residents of all ages on both the east and west side of town, Eber said.

Projects to be funded by the measure range from the creation of the long-awaited East Washington Park — including athletic fields, children's play areas, and pedestrian and bicycle pathways — to the installation of synthetic turf fields at Price Park and the renovation of the Community Center and the Polly Hannah Klaas Performing Arts Center.

Advocates say the improvements would enable Petaluma athletic leagues to host tournaments, bringing in tourism dollars to Petaluma. They also argue that the projects would provide health-conscious Petalumans better options for staying fit and young athletes better opportunities to train.

Todd Samet, of Petaluma Youth Lacrosse, said that a lack of adequate fields is a big problem for lacrosse teams that train in the late winter and early spring. Often, the grass fields are closed down during that rainy period, forcing lacrosse as well as soccer teams to practice elsewhere. “Elsewhere” is often basketball courts, tennis courts, or even parking lots.

Dan Drummond, a Petaluma resident and executive director of the Sonoma County Taxpayers Association, opposes the measure, expressing concerns about financial accountability. He points out in his formal ballot opposition that the tax will not raise the full amount needed to complete all listed projects. He explained that the total cost that the city has projected is needed to complete all the listed projects is about $18.7 million. The tax will bring in a little under $12 million and the city has an additional $4.7 million earmarked for use on the projects. This leaves about a $2 million gap.

“We don't want to have partially completed projects” he said, expressing concern that no source was identified in the ballot language for making up the funding gap.

Assistant City Manager Scott Brodhun explained that the city would rely on partnerships with community groups like Petaluma Youth Soccer and Friends of the Petaluma River to help provide the remaining funding. “We've always contemplated the funding that way, that there's an obligation of the groups participating,” Brodhun said.

Drummond also raised a concern that the measure wouldn't provide funding for long-term maintenance once the projects are completed. Eber says that some maintenance costs are built into the measure, but that they are only expected to be a very small percentage of the total expenditures and would relate specifically to new projects funded by the measure. She and other advocates also point out that many projects would result in decreased public maintenance costs, from synthetic fields that don't require mowing or watering, to a more energy efficient swim center. In addition, East Washington Park is expected to generate revenue from user fees once it is open, helping offset any maintenance expenses.

Drummond also notes there is no cap on how much money the city could charge the parks fund for administration costs and said he worries that the city would be able to use the funds raised by the ballot measure for things other than funding parks projects. He also argued that the city should have set aside more money for parks instead of continuing to pay so much to its employee pension costs.

PFOR advocates acknowledge that there is a widespread concern in the community about giving the city more monies to spend, and said that is why they've been especially careful to build financial accountability into the measure.

The measure calls for the creation of a Citizens Oversight Committee that will oversee the disbursement of the funds. The five-person committee would be chosen by the Petaluma Recreation, Music and Parks Commission, rather than the City Council, from a pool of community-nominated applicants. The committee would include a representative of the business community, the youth recreation community, the Petaluma Service Alliance and two other members.

The committee will report to the parks commission on a quarterly basis and to the City Council once a year.

Senior citizens and nonprofits can apply to the city for an exemption from paying the tax.

Kevin McDonnell, of Petaluma Youth Soccer is coordinating outreach efforts to educate the community about Measure X. He said he thinks the biggest hurdle the measure must overcome is simply a lack of awareness, explaining that many people still don't know it's even on the ballot.

“We find that everyone we talk to understands the importance of this, but not everyone is aware,” he said. He's started a door-to-door precinct walking campaign, and the goal is to cover Petaluma twice by election time, he said.

(Contact Jamie Hansen at jamie.hansen@arguscourier.com)

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