City moves forward with park tax

Fate of park-improvement assessment now in the hands of property owners

City moves forward with park taxCity Manager Ron Strand briefs Council and the public on the park and recreational facilities assessment at City Council — Photo by Laura Austin

By BRIAN COSNER, News Review Staff Writer

The approval of a parks and recreational facilities assessment district is now up to local voters after the Ridgecrest City Council approved the item and will move forward with the protest ballot process.

If the measure is passed, each residence will be subject to an annual special benefit assessment of up to $49, depending on its proximity to city facilities. Commercial properties will also be subject to assessments of up to $98 per acre up to 10 acres.

The assessment tax is estimated to bring in some $637,000 annually designated for parks and recreation maintenance as well as improvement and renovation projects. The Parks and Recreation Department has nearly $17 million in proposed projects, pending prioritization with the community’s input. But the city said that priorities would lie with reopening Pinney Pool and completing Ridgecrest Senior Center renovations.

According to City Manager Ron Strand, the Parks and Recreation Department’s budget has decreased from $2.36 million to $1.8 million over the last decade, not accounting for inflation. Department staff has also dropped by a third.

“We just don’t have the funding to maintain the facilities long term,” said Strand. “We have an extremely low general fund for a city of our size.”

He added that while jobs at the Naval Air Warfare Center Weapons Division, the valley’s primary employer, provide a good living wage to members of our community – they don’t contribute to our tax base because NAWCWD is a tax-exempt federal entity.

“This assessment district would help provide a reliable, steady stream of funding to help maintain our current sports complexes, parks and facilities,” he said. “The money we’re looking to get from the district would only be for improvements and major projects.”

The city is investigating a $3 million bond to repair and renovate Pinney Pool. Strand said the city could service the bond at about $177,000 per year for 30 years, leaving some $460,000 per year from the assessment for other projects. He said the city was also weighing the options of smaller bonds and shorter debt-service periods.

Assessments will be determined by the type of property (benefit factor) and the distance from any one of the city’s parks or recreational facilities (radius factor). Both figures will be multiplied by $49 to calculate the annual tax for each property.

Benefit factors are 1.00 for residences, 2.00 for commercial/industrial (including churches), 0.25 for schools and 0.20 for vacant properties. Radius factors are 1.0 for within 0.5 miles of a recreation facility, 0.9 for 0.5-1 mile, 0.8 for 1-1.5 miles, 0.7 for 1.5-2 miles, 0.6 for 2-2.5 miles and 0.5 for 2.5-3 miles.

For instance a single-family residence adjacent to a park will be assessed at $49 (1 x 1 x $49) while a duplex that is shy of two miles from any facility will be assessed at $68.60 (2 x .7 x $49). Meanwhile, commercial and industrial parcels are assessed by acreage – so a business on two acres that is more than three miles from any park will be assessed at $98 (2 x .5 x $49 per acre).

One detail that is not clear is how multifamily residences will be categorized. Neither city staff nor consultants from Willdan, which created the engineer’s report, gave a firm answer. But Willdan’s Jim McGuire said that the majority of the time, anything up to a quadplex is considered residential, while more than four residences are considered commercial – meaning a quadplex might be assessed at the same amount as a two-acre apartment complex.

Councilmember Mike Mower, who owns a business near the Kerr McGee Sports Complex, questioned the structure of the assessment in relation to residential versus commercial parcels.

“I’m going to pay $98 for my store, and the apartment complex down the street is going to pay $196 because it’s on two acres and they’ve got 40 families living there?” asked Mower.

“Remember these are assessments against the properties, not the residents,” said McGuire. “It’s a benefit to the property. Let’s say we have a 10-acre complex with 500 doors – is it reasonable to charge them 500 times? At some point, you have to make an analytical decision on what dictates beneficial use.”

“I understand what you’re saying,” said Mower, “but a 40-unit apartment complex is going to get a lot more benefit from a park than my business.”

When the assessment goes out to ballot, votes will be weighted so that property owners facing higher assessments will have a more heavily weighted vote. Whether the assessment passes will be based on the number of ballots the city receives within 45 days of mailing them out.

Some members of the public questioned the appropriateness of the assessment and how the city came to its decision in prioritizing projects without more public involvement.

“We need to have an actual public meeting so we can have a discussion on both sides,” said Ron Porter during public comment. Right now, it’s basically a used car salesman selling a car, but the mechanic can’t tell you anything about it.

“Let’s have some special meetings and have the discussion about what we want to spend our money on. It’s like the death of 1,000 cuts. California just keeps getting in my pocketbook.” Porter also questioned the legality of assessing vacant lots that have no value to the property owners.

“We have not had one single discussion about the big long list of wants and needs that have been presented here,” said Mike Neel. “The city manager and staff have gone around the city politicking this thing. Who knows how much time they spent propagandizing this thing.”

He also questioned some of the department’s high estimates, such as $1.4 million to upgrade the lights at Kerr McGee Sports Complex to LED lighting.

“This scope is so broad,” said Charles Rouland. “It’s $16.9 million worth of projects … and no clear definition of the projects. Close the scope down so you’re not funding something for 30 years. Instead of 30 items, maybe make it five or six items.”

“I can take you to any of our facilities and show you anything on this list and how it needs to be improved,” said Strand. “We have a long list, but it’s a long list of things that have needed to be repaired for a long time. That’s why we need to prioritize it.”

Stan Rajtora questioned why the assessment calculation didn’t take into account the number of public facilities near a parcel.

“There are locations in town that are close to four or five facilities and they’re paying the same as people who are close to one. In terms of specific benefit, if I’m living close to four or five, I have more benefit than a person who lives close to one.

“Also, three years ago council was talking about setting up a workshop where the city would go over its goals and its objectives. Now it seems like we’ve preempted that without prioritizing. We really should do it all at once rather than doing it piecemeal.”

But others were happy to pay the assessment with hopes of maintaining local public services.

“I did the math and that is a wonderful number you’ve come up with,” said Linda Fuller. “Somebody might say it’s too much. But it’s $4 a month – that’s less than $1 a week.”

Suzette Caulfield said the assessment would be in line with Ridgecrest’s strategic economic plan – specifically attracting and retaining jobs at China Lake through quality-of-life improvements.

“The military by no means is the only source of economic activity, but is by far the most important. Talent retention and attraction – access to a skilled workforce is critical,” she read from the strategic plan. “Communities that can attract and retain skilled workers have a competitive advantage.”

Councilmember Scott Hayman stressed that the city needed to keep in mind maintenance costs when it allocates funds. “If you don’t change your paradigm in how you manage things, you’re going to be in the same boat down the road,” he said. “We need to have ongoing maintenance and be able to carry this on to the next generation.”

“This has been a very long time coming,” said Mayor Peggy Breeden. “We must take care of what we have. It’s our responsibility to take care of our community as we must.”

Vice Mayor Wallace Martin said that “$49 a year to help fix our pool is pretty much money well spent.” He added that all proposed projects would still need to be vetted in public through the council and that he doesn’t plan on approving any $1.4-million lighting replacements.

Mayor Pro Tem Lindsey Stephens moved to approve two resolutions — one to form the assessment district and the second to approve the engineer’s report, declare intent to levy the assessment, conduct a protest ballot and set a time and place for a public hearing.

Council passed both resolutions unanimously. See future editions for more developments. For notices of upcoming meetings, see ridgecrest-ca.gov/ridgecrest-city-council.

Story First Published: 2019-02-22