Park district looks ahead, hopes to pass two-year financial plan

Vashon Park District commissioners will vote next week on a financial plan that provides a path the district could take to build a reserve and end its reliance on borrowing money each year.

Created by a finance committee that included three park board members and one member of the community, the plan calls for cutting expenses by renting out the Belle Baldwin House at Fern Cove on a long-term basis and increasing revenue by raising user fees, particularly at the park district’s athletic fields. Additionally, the plan projects a modest increase in income from tax receipts, as property values are climbing. It also indicates that the district will need to borrow money this year and next to help tide it over between receiving its biannual tax revenue payments, but after these two years, that practice should no longer be necessary.

Some significant capital projects are also accounted for in the document, including building the skate park bowl, completing the remainder of the work required for the VES Fields grading permit and taking care of needed maintenance at Point Robinson.

Commissioner Scott Harvey, who chaired the committee, presented the plan at last week’s board meeting, stressing it is not a budget, but a plan built on what he called “reasonable recommendations.” Much more work will be needed between now and when the budget is created in the fall, he noted, including talking with user groups to get their feedback on raising fees.

“This is just the starting point here,” he told the commissioners at the meeting.

After the last state audit, the board responded by stating it would create a financial plan and submit it to the auditor’s office by June 30. At last week’s meeting, Harvey indicated he would like the board to vote on the plan that night to meet the deadline, but two of the board members expressed the desire to review it more thoroughly before a vote, delaying its submittal.

The plan comes after a rough financial patch for the district, one that is expected to improve at the end of next year, when the $400,000 bond the park district secured for the fields project in 2011 will be retired, according to park district executive director Elaine Ott. Then, the amount of debt the district pays each year will drop from 14 percent of its budget to 3 percent.

Joe Wubbold, who served on the finance committee, characterized the recommendations as solid ideas that he expected would have board support, adding that the recommendations either had been voted on by the board already or stood a reasonable chance of passing a board vote. He also reiterated that the plan is not a budget, but shows one way forward.

“It is one way that it can be done,” he said.

In interviews following the meeting, both Harvey and Wubbold stressed their belief that users of the fields should be paying more to use them. The cost of maintaining the district’s fields has resulted in a permanent increase to the park district’s expenses, Harvey said.

“It is only appropriate that the people who use the facilities pay more,” he added.

Historically, Harvey  said, field users have paid less in user fees to the park district than students pay in user fees for school sports, and he believes park fees should increase by next year.

“My point is (users) should be paying substantially more,” he said.

According to the current user fee agreement, nonprofit sports clubs, such as soccer and baseball, can pay the park district either $15 per player each sports season for two practices and one game each week or pay an hourly rate of $5 per hour and $10 per game.

Vashon Island school district board member Bob Hennessey, however, said it is difficult to compare the fees the two districts receive. At the high school, he said, students pay $150 to compete in each sport, which covers transportation to away games, a paid coach, equipment and field use. The school district does not apportion a set amount to facility use, as is the case with the park district.

Before the park board makes any decisions, Harvey said they will invite users to meet and provide feedback about what they think is a reasonable fee increase.

“I am hoping we can craft something that we all think is fair,” he said.

Before it began its work, the park district announced that the Finance Committee was forming and invited members of the public with financial acumen to participate. Only two people expressed interest, Wubbold and Hilary Emmer, a tax preparer and community activist. Emmer joined the committee and attended the first two meetings, which were open to the public. Then in an email to school district officials, she shared information the committee and park board had discussed. Afterward, because of that email, Harvey said he told her that her services were no longer needed. He did so privately, he added, because he respects her work in the community and did not want to say anything negative about her in a public forum.

Wubbold voiced his disagreement with the decision both at a public meeting and privately, saying he believes the committee lost in the process. For her part, Emmer said she shared public information with the school district and was surprised to be removed for it. She has allegiance to neither the park or school districts, she said, but to making sure tax dollars are well spent in both places.

Overall, Harvey said he is proud of the contributions of the people on the committee, which also included fellow commissioners Bill Ameling and Doug Ostrom. He noted the public’s disgruntlement with the park district for the cost of the fields project and its practice of borrowing money.

“This is the first step showing that the park district is listening to its constituents,” he said.

Ott also said that her initial review of the plan looked good, though she expects there are areas, specifically maintenance, where additional funds will be needed beyond what the plan suggests.

“I love the fact we are being less reliant on debt, and it makes me feel good having a reserve,” she said. “You never know when you are going to need wiggle room in your budget.”


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