Survey aims to find what park district residents are willing to pay in taxes

The Tualatin Hills Park and Recreation District is moving forward with a plan to seek voter approval of a capital bond measure in the November general election. For now.

While the park district board unanimously approved a preliminary plan for the funding proposal Monday night, the details of the bond amount and specifics of proposed projects included in the package have yet to be determined.

Those decisions hinge on results of a second public survey on how the funding measure will be received by voters and additional input from the community collected during a series of open houses.

With an eye on challenging economic times, park district leaders are hoping THPRD's history of providing quality recreation opportunities and its reputation for fiscal responsibility will go a long way in earning community support for its first bond measure since 1994.

'We have seen a tremendous amount of growth since then,' said General Manager Doug Menke. 'In that time, it's become very clear where we are deficient in services and areas where we are lacking park sites, trails and recreation facilities.

'If we don't start tackling the needs we've identified in our comprehensive plan, none of the items will get less expensive to complete. One of the most critical factors to consider is the land aspect. Available properties have disappeared, and what's left is expensive.'

'Delicate balancing act'

In an attempt to be sensitive to property owners' pocketbooks when they are already feeling strapped for cash, the park district has undertaken a feasibility study and sought public input on a future funding measure over the last few months.

'It's a delicate balancing act,' said board member Larry Pelatt. 'We want to be mindful of the financial impact of a bond while also knowing we need to go forward and meet our growth requirements.

'If you look at our comprehensive plan, it clearly shows the needs we have in response to the kind of growth we've seen in Washington County. We're behind on land acquisition, sports fields and neighborhood and community parks.'

At the same time, existing facilities like the THPRD Elsie Stuhr Center are feeling a space crunch and athletic groups are finding it difficult to field games in light of growing use demands.

An initial scientific survey conducted in January by The Trust for Public Land's Conservation Finance Program showed strong voter support for a potential bond measure to fund land conservation, parks and recreational improvements.

Of the district residents polled, 66 percent supported a $100 million bond while 21 percent said 'no' and 13 percent were undecided.

When presented with the $85 cost per year for the average homeowner in a $100 million bond, voter support remained essentially the same at 65 percent.

Meanwhile support for a smaller bond measure was stronger - 68 percent supported a $65 million bond and 78 percent supported a $40 million bond.

Positive polling

Following the survey, the board approved formation of a Bond Measure Task Force and launched a public outreach program that included three public meetings and online and facility-based surveys, which gathered more than 500 responses.

The task force reviewed that input and created an extended base package totaling $50.9 million that would include neighborhood park renovation, new community park construction, youth athletics fields, natural area restoration, facility expansions and accessibility improvements for disabled patrons at the Howard Terpenning Recreation Complex.

That total does not include partial funding of $30 million for development of a new community center, $2 million in land acquisition and restoration work in additional natural areas or $3 million to purchase six additional acres of land for parks and athletic fields.

'In the coming months as a board, we need to consider if we should go for the base package and just cover some of our needs, or should we reach for the stars,' Pelatt said. 'The only way we're going to get big capital projects off the ground is to go out and get a bond.

'There's no other way for us to generate the kind of money required to build a new recreation facility or a big park or even go after purchasing land for what people want.'

To help the board make that decision, The Trust for Public Land will conduct a second survey at the end of May.

'Support for a bond may drop a little, but I still feel fairly confident that voters will look at this as a priority,' said Josh Alpert, northwest conservation services director for The Trust for Public Land.

'By supporting this measure, the community still has an opportunity to be farsighted. Land values increase every day. It's really crucial that THPRD gets out there and acquires property now while the land is still somewhat affordable.'

Park district leaders will look to results of that survey and feedback from three additional open houses to decide if they will move forward with a bond proposal, how large it will be and specific projects it will support.

'It's not a done deal, but the momentum is moving forward,' said board member Joe Blowers. 'We want to make sure the voters will support what we are asking for.

'The polling completed in January was pretty positive, and we hope that will continue.'

Moving forward with a funding package is critical, he added.

'With the tax money we get every year, we can do a good job providing programs and keeping the facilities fixed up and maintained,' Blowers said. 'But there is not enough coming in to do the really big things.

'How do we add a new community park? How do we aggressively connect trails with gaps so there's a continuous five-mile stretch for people to use? The reality is the trails will never get completed and we'll never add the parks we need unless voters say, 'Yes, we trust you and here is the money to do these things.''

Park district staff will return to the board in June with final recommendations and a request to adopt a final bond project package.

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