Asking local voters for more tax dollars during difficult economic times could be a tough sell, but it is exactly what a grassroots coalition of Petaluma residents wants to do this November to increase funding for city parks and recreation facilities.

"We recognize these are tough times," said Carol Eber, co-chairperson of the Petaluma Friends of Recreation, the grassroots citizens group preparing a residential parcel tax initiative for the November ballot. "Still," Eber said, "What amounts to $1 a week doesn't seem like too much to ask for recreational facilities that will benefit the entire community."

In its initial stages, the ballot initiative envisioned by PFOR calls for an annual assessment of $52 per residential parcel to fund improvements, repairs or upgrades at eight recreational sites around the city. Included in the projects targeted for funding by the tax is phase one of East Washington Park, a 24.88 acre site near the Petaluma Municipal Airport. The site has been dedicated to the city for multi-use sports fields and for bike and pedestrian trail connections, but has never been completed. Other expanded uses targeted by the initiative include artificial turf in Prince Park and renovations at the Polly Hannah Klass Performing Center along with restoration and preservation of the historic livery stable in Steamer Landing Park.

Also among improvement projects that could be funded by the tax are a new roof, carpet and HVAC system at the Petaluma Community Center, resurfacing and lighting tennis courts at McNear, Lucchesi and Del Oro parks, resurfacing trails at Westridge, Wiseman and LaTercera Parks and pool equipment replacements and renovations at Cavanagh pool and the Petaluma Swim Center.

The details are still being worked out by PFOR, but Eber said her group envisions that the parcel tax revenues could not only pay for small projects annually, but could be used to pay off a city bond issue that would allow the city to "do some of the work up front on larger projects like East Washington Park."

Eber added that "We're trying to keep the rate very low, so the bond could get paid off over about 15 years. The final project priorities would be set by the Paarks & Recreation Commission, but the money won't go to pensions or administrative salarioes. It will be spent on projects."

PFOR needs volunteers and donations to help get the tax proposal on the November ballot. Group treasurer, Bill Sullivan, said the fundraising for the ballot initiative begun this week totals between $3,000 to $5,000 of the $100,000 target.

Sullivan said the group raised about $15,000 last year to conduct a targeted survey of likely voters to determine what they would mostly likely be willing to pay for recreational upgrades. "We knew any type of tax would generate opposition," Sullivan said, "...but the difference here is the significance and long term benefit to the citizens of the town."

Eber said that the 15-minute telephone survey generated a 61 percent favorable response, with another 15 percent undecided. A two-thirds majority is required for passage of a parcel tax, but Eber feels confident that with more information about how the projects would benefit the community, more voters will decide to support the tax.

Recreational facilities also generate revenues for local businesses, Sullivan added. "If you look at the facilities other communities have built ... you see people who come to tournaments stay in local motels, they pay TOT (transit occupancy taxes), they eat meals in town and contribute to the local economy."

Former Petaluma Parks commissioner Mark Ferguson, a co-founder of PFOR, said the need for adequate funding for recreation projects plagued the city even in good times. "Now with so many budget cuts it is evident we are not going to have the money to do what we need to do," he said. For example, the proposed East Washington Park "was at the top of the city's priority list for 20 years ... but there was never any new money coming in to do it."

Ferguson added that despite the realization that this may not be a "good time" to try to "educate the community" about what is needed for local recreation, "waiting is not the thing to do. The longer we wait the more needs to be done."

Ferguson and Eber agreed that PFOR came about because a small cadre of people realized that the only way to get help was to see the big picture and to come together to improve it.

In these times, the fact that a grassroots movement can come out of a group of diverse citizens who care about recreation is quite an accomplishment, said Scott Brodhun, assistant city manager and director of parks and recreation. "It is gratifying and without the efforts of such a group, I don't see how we can fund some of the projects that are critical to the community," Brodhun said. "What they are doing," he added, "is setting aside their specific interests" to get funding for some of the projects identified as needed and in most cases approved, but not funded by the city over the years.

(Contact Marsha Trent at argus@arguscourier.com)