Citizens express opposition to parks assessment

Assessment fails to pass with 80% 'no' votes

Citizens express opposition to parks assessmentBy BRIAN COSNER

News Review Staff Writer

The Ridgecrest City Council held a public hearing to count the ballots for a parks assessment district on Wednesday night. As the News Review was going to press, City Manager Ron Strand released a statement that the assessment had failed with 80% (weighted) opposition.

While nearly everyone during public comment recognized the need for increased resources to maintain our park facilities, most who provided feedback also expressed concern about the structure of the proposed assessment.

The proposal would place an assessment, up to $49 per residence or $98 per commercial acre and in proportion to the parcel’s distance to the nearest public recreation facility, on the property tax rolls. Ultimately, propertyowners would be funding some $600,000 annually for public parks.

The resolution requires the district to be reevaluated annually by council to determine whether to lower or even eliminate the district, based on the city’s needs. But council can also authorize an increase of 3.5 percent each year to accommodate inflation.

Some members of the public challenged the legality of the structure of the proposed assessment. Member of the public Ron Porter said that Prop 218 requires that a special-benefit assessment be an improvement to the actual land or property.

“The engineer’s report has to show a special benefit to the property above and beyond that of to the public,” he said. “I don’t know how a park benefits the land or a building. It benefits the public far more than the property itself. I have no doubt it if this is challenged in court it will be successful, and the city council is putting the city in liability by moving forward with this.”

Public attendee Phil Salvatore added that special taxes were required to be applied uniformly and couldn’t be based on the zoning developed by consultant Wildan Services.

“If there is a legal challenge, we will zealously defend it,” said Legal Counsel Keith Lemieux. He added that taxes, assessments, fees and special taxes are all handled differently, with this assessment not bound by the same restrictions as is a special tax.

“The city has spent a lot of energy identifying the special benefits to the properties and created zones and done all the things you’re supposed to do in that regard,” said Lemieux. “We have opined that this assessment was done properly and lawfully.”

“When I heard about this I was encouraged,” said member of the public John Froehner. “It sounded like a very reasonable solution to a huge issue we have in this city. When the ballots went out and I read [City Manager Ron Strand’s] letter, I was struck by his statement that the base is not required to pay state and local taxes. I had never really thought about that — that does place us in a special financial situation.

“However when I started reading through all the other information about the assessment, it quickly became apparent to me that while we do need a solution to this issue, this is not it.”

Froehner also questioned why the city would hold a public hearing when the vast majority of the ballots had already been mailed in.

“At this point, what is the purpose of this hearing?” asked Froehner. “What’s missing is time. Time for the community to consider not only what you have mailed out, but also what is being discussed here this evening that will bring up different perspectives and questions.”

Vice Mayor Wallace Martin pointed out that the parks assessment has been discussed in multiple city council meetings over the last year and that the city hosted a workshop dedicated to this item last month. But Wednesday night’s agenda item was the only item referred to as a “public hearing.”

“Legally, the term for this is a public hearing to open the ballots,” said Martin. “What it should have been called was not a public hearing, it should have been called something else ... it suggests an open forum when in fact we’ve had two or three other city council meetings to discuss this. But I think we should have called it something else.”

“It wasn’t like it was hidden,” said Mayor Peggy Breeden. “It was open, people participated and made comments and this is just the last of many meetings we’ve had.”

“Well, shame on me for not paying more attention,” said Froehner, adding he still believed the initiative is flawed.

“As far as this stands, I’m taking my five votes from my five units and I am voting no,” he said.

Member of the public Andrea Scott shared that many other people didn’t know about the item until they received their letters.

Breeden said that city council agendas are always available online and that local media outlets have been covering the topic over the last several months.

“Short of mailing everything to you, there’s not a way to make sure everyone gets it other than saying read your papers and watch the media,” said Breeden.

“Not everybody takes the papers and not everybody looks at the internet,” said Scott. “With something that is going to affect all the propertyowners, you should have gone the extra step. I’m for those parks being upgraded. I’m for the pool being opened. I am not for the city’s propertyowners bearing the burden.”

Strand said that mailing the ballot cost the city $8,000, so constantly mailing notices to the public isn’t an option financially.

Member of the public Denise Kite said that she’s attended most of the public meetings regarding the assessment, but that none of them offered a back-and-forth dialog.

“I’ve come, I’ve stood in line, I’ve voiced my opinion,” she said. “But when was the discussion? When was the discussion: a. We’re going to have an assessment, b. It’s going to be a property tax, C. We’re going to have a big bake sale. When were we discussing what avenue we were going to take?”

When council approved the feasibility study for an assessment district, it handed the structure over to Wildan to develop the details of the assessment. That discussion did not happen in a public setting.

“Public discussion is right the heck now,” said Martin. “That’s what we’re doing up here taking notes and listening to what you say.”

Member of the public Mike Neel said that after the tripled sewer fees, the 1-percent Measure V sales tax and the proposed assessment “we’re being overtaxed.”

He also objected to Strand’s making public appearances to “propagandize” the assessment district.

“The city manger should have advised the council. The council should have invited public comment and public input,” said Neel. “But we didn’t do that. We just let the city manager take over the city council’s function as the representatives of the people.”

One resident did speak in favor of the assessment. “Everything I’ve read in here improves our community,” said John Enriquez. “I think it’s a really good idea if $49 is my fair share. My only concern is if the money we’re paying goes to what’s on the list.”

Strand reminded the public that any project would start at the committee level and require council approval before moving forward.

Pictured: Member of the public John Froehner raises some of his concerns regarding the assessment public hearing during Wednesday night’s Ridgecrest City Council meeting — Photo by Laura Austin

Story First Published: 2019-04-19