The Enid News and Eagle, Enid, OK

December 22, 2012

City of Enid parks proposal plans were generated from public surveys conducted in 2008

By James Neal, Staff Writer
Enid News and Eagle

ENID, Okla. — Enid residents will vote March 5 on a pair of proposals that would generate $50 million in revenue to upgrade the city’s parks system.

Enid City Commissioners voted unanimously Thursday to send a pair of ballot questions to voters: one to raise $20 million by increasing the city sales tax rate by one-half cent for five years, and one to pay for $30 million in general obligation bonds by extending an existing 7 mill ad valorem tax. The 7 mill ad valorem tax previously was enacted to fund city bridge improvements.

Enid City Manager Eric Benson said the path to the current parks plan began with public surveys in 2008. In anticipation of the current bridge bonds expiring, and other debt obligations maturing, Benson said the city wanted to see what citizens would want to do with money freed up for capital investment.

“What we were shocked to find, was more than 70 percent of respondents said parks and recreation was a good use for that money,” Benson said.

The city subsequently commissioned an inventory of the city’s parks by the Tulsa architectural and site planning firm Howell and Vancuren.

The firm’s findings were developed into a plan that would: renovate all existing parks; build two new neighborhood parks; build a large community park at 30th and Randolph, to include a water park, pool or other water feature; and expand on the city’s trail system. It all would be funded by the combination of continuing the existing 7 mill ad valorem tax and increasing city sales tax by one-half cent for a term of five years.

Benson said the parks plan “is a grassroots response to a grassroots need,” a direct response to the public’s input.

If approved by voters, the majority of the parks plan would be funded by the $30 million in bond issues. According to the city proposition, $21 million of the $30 million would be split between construction of two new city parks and upgrades to existing neighborhood parks.

The $21 million would represent more than 70 percent of the bond issue, meeting the statutory requirement that at least 70 percent of city bonds be earmarked for specific projects.

The largest development in the bond plan would be a new park at 30th and Randolph, which would include “softball fields, soccer fields, football fields, outdoor basketball courts, playgrounds, a skate park, picnic shelters, restrooms and concession facilities” at a cost of $13.4 million.

A new park would be located in the city’s central business district, “with lighting and speakers, a decorative water feature, site furnishings and landscaping,” at a cost of about $820,000.

The remaining $6.8 million would be split between improvement projects at all of the city’s neighborhood parks.

Financial cost minimal

Benson said the financial cost of the plan on Enid residents and shoppers would be minimal. For the ad valorem portion of the funding, Benson said the owner of a home with an assessed value of $150,000 would pay about 38 cents per week. And, he said, homeowners already are paying the ad valorem tax, so there would be no additional burden.

As for the five-year half-cent increase in sales tax, Benson said the average shopper in Enid would pay about 17 cents more per week to fund the parks plan.

And, Benson said, by dedicating separate funding for parks renovation and maintenance, the city could free up general budget funds for other infrastructure needs.

He said the city could free up as much as an additional $4 million per year to spend on street repairs if the parks plan is approved by voters.

There remain some uncertainties about specifics in the parks plan, especially for projects not delineated in the obligation bonds.

The size and scope of the water feature at 30th and Randolph is one of the largest plan aspects not yet designed, along with improvements to the trail system.

Benson said specific plans will be finalized once funding is approved by voters.

“We’re not going to design anything until we know the people will fund it,” Benson said, specifically referring to the 30th and Randolph water feature. “We’re waiting for the voters to tell us what they want so we can build it for them.”

Benson said the city will solicit input from each neighborhood about wants and needs for their neighborhood park, and from the city as a whole for the entire project.

“We want to know from each neighborhood what they want for their dollar in their neighborhood,” Benson said.

Assistant City Manager Joan Riley said projects outlined in the bond proposal already have specific amounts assigned to specific projects.

Riley said there are “some general ideas” of what parks improvement funded from the sales tax would look like, but specifics won’t be settled on until “we can bring neighborhood groups together and find out what they would like to see for their specific park.”

She said the sales tax revenue would allow the city to fund improvements not covered by the general obligation bonds.

“Basically, what it represents is things that aren’t represented in the $30 million (of bonds), such as trails and replacement of Champlin Pool.”

Champlin likely would be taken out of service and replaced by the water feature at the 30th and Randolph park, though specifics of the size and scope of the new water park have yet to be determined.

Also to be taken out of service would be South Government Springs Park, built on a long-decommissioned and settling landfill.

“We need to remove what’s there and create something that could survive on an old landfill,” Riley said.

She said the sales tax funding also would enable the city to build two new neighborhood parks, one on land already owned by the city near Prairie View Elementary School, and one at a still-unspecified location in the city’s northeast quarter.

Some uncertainty

Where the plan remains uncertain is in the possibility voters could approve one funding source, but not the other.

“There is some uncertainty of whether both sides will be funded,” Riley said.

She said if only the bonds pass and the sales tax fails, or vice versa, the city would have to make some choices about the scope and design of the parks plan.

“They do complement each other, and if only one of them passes, then we have some choices to make,” Riley said. “If the bond issue passes but not the sales tax, then we’ve already specified the projects for the bonds. But, if the sales tax is the only one that passes, then we have to take a real close look at what we can accomplish ... and that may change as opposed to being able to do both sides. Of course, if they both pass, it’s easy.”

Riley said plans for sales tax funds may remain unspecified, but use of the funds would be limited to parks and recreation improvements and maintenance.

“It is for quality-of-life issues, and that includes parks and recreation purchases, parks maintenance ... it’s all for that quality-of-life scope.

“Our purpose is to fund parks and recreation. The money is restricted to those areas, you just don’t have to outline them specifically, like you do with the bonds.”

Riley said the city is prepared to re-evaluate the parks plan if voters approve only one funding source, but she remains confident voters will approve both.

“We’re going with the faith that the people want improved quality of life, and they’re going to vote both of them in, and the city will benefit from that as a whole.”

Ward One Commissioner Ron Janzen said he is in favor of the proposed parks plan precisely because it does address the whole city.

Janzen said he had concerns about the previous draft of the parks plan, because it specified the bond money for the total project at the 30th and Randolph park, and left neighborhood parks to be funded by the sales tax. He said that raised the possibility the bond would pass, but not the sales tax, and leave the neighborhood parks without improvements.

Now, with the plan spreading both sales tax and bond funds across the city, Janzen said he is “pretty well-satisfied with the final result.”

Janzen said it is time not only to build and renovate Enid parks, but also to staff and fund a parks department responsible for their upkeep.

“I feel like what we’re presenting now is a pretty well-balanced and funded program that’s going to not only add more parks, but also take care of the existing parks and take care of some repairs that have been needed for some time.”

By his own estimation, Janzen knows more than most people about Enid’s parks. He has served “more on than off” the Enid Park Board since 1973, has served as the board’s chairman more than once, and served a previous term as city commissioner before his current term.

Janzen said Enid’s parks have suffered neglect over the years because the city did not have a funded parks department.

“Parks in Enid have been traditionally a stepchild,” Janzen said. “Parks got money when everything else had been done, and sometimes even when money was budgeted for parks, it didn’t get spent because other things came up.”

Janzen said the parks plan proposal is “an opportunity for the parks to get the funds and the improvements they’ve needed for a long time.”

“I’ve always been a great advocate for quality-of-life issues, and you can spend money on a lot of things, but the people who are paying the taxes, their needs and desires should be a priority,” Janzen said. “People like the parks, they deserve nice parks, and it should be something the people paying the bills will get to enjoy for a long time into the future.”

Ward Two Commissioner Mike Stuber said the time has come for Enid to invest in more than just infrastructure maintenance.

“We spend upwards of $4 million-plus on streets each year, but yet we’re playing spring softball on an old landfill that has glass in the field,” Stuber said, referring to  Government Springs Park South. “I think if we want to stop losing businesses like Continental, we have to focus more on some of the quality-of-life issues here in Enid.”

Stuber said infrastructure improvements do need to be a priority, but investing in quality-of-life issues like the city’s parks will increase the city’s overall revenue, and enable even more infrastructure improvements.

“Nobody in their right mind is going to drive to Enid just because our roads are nice,” Stuber said. “But, they might drive here for a tournament, or an aquatics meet … and while they’re here they’re going to have dinner, maybe do some shopping and spend some money.

“We could take this $50 million and spend it all on roads, and we could have the nicest roads anywhere, but in two years they’re going to need to be repaired again. If we don’t do something to increase our ability to capture tax dollars, when the energy sector busts, when that does happen, we’re going to be worse off.”

Increase Enid’s draw

Stuber said the citywide overhaul of parks, paired with building the two new neighborhood parks and the large community park, would increase Enid’s draw for sales-tax-paying visitors.

“I think people underestimate the financial impact things like this will have in bringing new dollars into town. If you are able to increase your sales tax revenue, that helps the budget, which helps all the other things,” he said. “It’s not about ‘this or that,’ it’s ‘this, then that.’”

He said spreading the parks funding between an ad valorem tax and sales tax broadens the base of people paying for the plan by capturing sales tax revenue from people who live outside Enid, but come here to shop.

“It’s incredibly important that we let outsiders come in and help us pay for our new parks,” Stuber said. “They’re coming here anyway, at a half-cent in sales tax, let’s let them help pay for this.”

By investing in its parks infrastructure, Stuber said the city would be taking a step in the right direction toward stemming an “exodus” of local youth, families and businesses.

“It’s not just about the kids, it’s about the entire family,” Stuber said. “This is about creating places where children and families can build memories, so hopefully our children and grandchildren want to come back to Enid.”

Enid voters have more than two months to study the parks plan issue, to weigh their options and determine how they will vote.

Whether voters embrace the proposal or vote it down, Benson said the people’s choice at the polls will determine the city’s course.

“It is the role of government in Enid to give the people the opportunity to determine their level of quality of life, and their means to achieve it,” Benson said. “This is about your community and your kids, and if you like it, vote for it. If you don’t like it, don’t vote for it. If the people vote ‘no,’ then that’s fine. We’ll move on to something else.”