Three public meetings over 10 days (including one tonight, Thursday, Dec. 15) have illuminated various options, but the signals, from the public at large, and from the Montrose City Council, have been mixed.
The board of directors of the Montrose Recreation District met with a lukewarm reception at a meeting with the city council on Dec. 6 to discuss a tax partnership that would fund the $22.6 million project. A Citizen Task Force, working on the rec center plan for the better part of a year, had recommended the sales tax partnership as its preferred funding method. They proposed a 0.2 percent sale tax increase (2 cents on a $10 purchase), one that would be paid by locals and visitors alike, with a sunset of 10 years.
But the majority on council voiced reservations. Councilor Gail Marvel said she wanted to see the city’s taxing authority used to improve city infrastructure. Mayor Kathy Ellis worried that a failed ballot measure would hurt the prospects for future sales tax initiatives. Councilors Bill Patterson and Thomas Smits said they would prefer to see the MRD proceed with construction of the rec center in phases, as the district can afford pay for them itself.
The tax partnership idea is not a new one. The city has partnered with MRD in the past to raise money, as well as with the school district and the library district. The rec center task force, in its report to the MRD, preferred the sales tax option to raising the district’s property tax mill levy, politically a more difficult sell. A third funding option, according to MRD Executive Director Ken Sherbenou, is to “expand our savings program, put more money into capital reserves until we can begin construction” without asking for a tax increase. This option would, Sherbenou said, “delay the project for several years.”
The MRD board meets again tonight at the Aquatic Center (Colorado Avenue and South Rio Grande) to consider the possibilities. The public hearing is scheduled for 7 p.m.
Sure to be part of the discussion, Sherbenou said, is a suggestion made by city councilman Thomas Smits to pursue a citizen petition to put the sales tax question on the ballot. “The council was not keen to make that decision themselves. But they did suggest a route whereby a citizen petition could result in a ballot initiative,” Sherbenou said. “The task force has expressed interest in doing this. We are waiting to hear now from our attorney on how that would be crafted.”
Petitioners would need signatures from five percent of the total registered electors, according to Montrose City Clerk Lisa DelPiccolo. At present that would be slightly more than 600 signatures out of the approximately 12,000 electors in the city.
On Thursday, Dec. 8, following the meeting with the city council, the MRD board met to hear public input on the rec center proposal and its potential funding. They heard numerous impassioned pleas in support of a new community rec center. Arguments included the fact that no city of Montrose’s size on the Western Slope doesn’t have such an amenity. Many spoke of the rec center as a magnet for future growth, for retirees and families considering moving to the area. There was support for the planned youth programs and the real need to provide healthy alternatives for kids in the community. And, naturally, there were testimonials about the fitness and health benefits to citizens of all ages.
A smaller group of citizens voiced either disapproval or caution. The outright disapproval came from people philosophically opposed to public support for an enterprise they saw as competing with private gyms in town. (One such complainant did, in fact, have an ownership interest in a local gym. Another citizen suggested the rec center could be built without the fitness room and equipment, thus eliminating the point of contention.)
Others expressing caution said simply that the time was not right, in the midst of an economic downturn, to begin a project of this scale.
The MRD board meeting tonight will take up three motions, although board action on any of them is not guaranteed.
The first motion is whether or not to accept the recommendation of the Citizen Task Force that a new rec center is needed, is desired by the community, and ought to be pursued. (Part of the report states unequivocally that the 25-year-old pool at the Aquatics Center is on its last legs.)
The second motion would instruct the district to move ahead in pursuit of funding, either with the preferred sales tax option, or the mill levy option.
The third motion addresses other funding options: either moving ahead with the project in phases, or expanding the district’s savings programs with the consequent delay in realizing a new rec center.
Executive director Sherbenou remains undaunted, and convinced that the rec center is a good idea. After the disappointing meeting with city council, he said, “This is just step one in evaluating the most appropriate way to move forward.”