The Enid News and Eagle, Enid, OK

Local and State News

March 3, 2013

City manager: Surveys spurred proposed plan

ENID, Okla. — (EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the second of a two-part series on the city of Enid’s “Quality of Life” election slated for Tuesday.)

Residents of Enid Tuesday will decide the fate of the Quality of Life initiative, a $50 million proposal to build new and upgrade existing city parks.

A pair of ballot questions proposes to raise funds to improve existing city parks; build two new neighborhood parks; build a new downtown park and a new community park; build 10 miles of new city trails; and establish a parks and recreation department.

The $50 million in proposed funding is split into two ballot questions: one to raise $20 million by increasing the city sales tax rate by one-half percent for five years, and a second ballot question to pay for $30 million in general obligation bonds by extending an existing 7 mill ad valorem tax for a term of 20 years.

The 7 mill ad valorem tax previously was enacted to fund city bridge improvements. The one-half percent increase in the sales tax rate would begin July, 1 2013, and would expire June 30, 2018.

Enid City Manager Eric Benson said the Quality of Life initiative before voters this week is the result of five years’ worth of public input and staff planning, beginning with public surveys in 2008.

He said parks improvements was consistently listed as a high priority in all of the public polls, taken through the mail, online and in direct interviews.

“Parks and overall quality of life issues were the No. 1 sought after and the most desired item from those polls,” Benson said.

Based on that input, the city contracted with architectural planning firm Howell & Vancuren Inc. to conduct an audit of the city’s parks and develop a master parks plan.

The result was a community-wide inventory of city park assets and a master plan that outlined almost $80 million worth of new park construction and renovation.

Benson said the $80 million plan put forward by Howell & Vancuren was a recommendation, and should not be confused with the $50 million plan being put before voters.

“We asked Howell & Vancuren to give us a comprehensive analysis of what we have and what could be,” Benson said. “What we have done is taken that end-to-end analysis and then decided what we could feasibly address.”

The resulting $50 million plan, as it appears before voters this week, calls for at least 70 percent of the $30 million in bonds to fund the following:

• A new community park, to be built 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 bond cost of $13.4 million.

• A new central park, to be located downtown. The city already owns the property for this park, which is located between Garriott on the south, Oklahoma on the north, Independence to the west and Grand on the east. The park would include green space, landscaping, and an amphitheater at its center, facing south toward the natural slope that comes down from Garriott toward downtown. The bond funding for this park is specified at $824,100.

• Improvements to all existing neighborhood parks, at a cost of $6.87 million.

The bond proposals together add up to more than $21 million — more than 70 percent of the $30 million in bonds, as required by statute.

The remaining $29 million in funding — $20 million in sales tax revenue and $9 million in unspecified bond funds — would cover any cost overruns in the bond projects, plus the following:

• Addition of 10 more miles of city trails, bringing the city’s trail system up to 13 miles of the total 30-mile master trail plan.

• Construction of a new neighborhood park on city property in the northwest part of the city, near Prairie View Elementary school.

• Construction of a new neighborhood park, on land that has not yet been identified, in the city’s northeast quarter.

• Addition of a water feature or water park at the 30th and Randolph community park.

Benson said the trails portion of the plan is solely funded by and dependent on the success of the sales tax portion of the vote.

“If the people vote down the sales tax, they vote down trails,” Benson said, “and the trails have been one of the most popular pieces of this.”

The $50 million plan also includes $5 million to establish, equip and initially fund a parks and recreation department.

Benson said creating a dedicated parks and recreation department is critical to ensure parks are maintained, and its funding source always has been included in the plan.

“This decision includes a long-term strategy to hire, equip and fund a full-time and very capable parks and recreation department,” Benson said. “We didn’t just look at half the issue and then kick the can down the road. We have looked at the long-term viability of this entire issue.”

Benson said it will cost an estimated $1.5 million to $2 million to equip and staff the parks and recreation department, and the specified $5 million would cover the initial start-up cost and about the first two years of department operations.

After that, Benson said, the parks and recreation department would be funded in the same manner as any other city department: by a dedicated budget line established and approved by the city commission.

“If this council gets a commitment from the community of this amount, they’re not going to back away from a budget requirement like this to fund the parks and recreation department,” Benson said.

He said the initial $5 million in funding will carry the parks and recreation department until the city pays off the water bond debt in 2017, leaving the commissioners more than enough extra money to provide for the new parks and recreation department.

“By the time the initial funding tapers off to the long-term requirement for funding, this council will have $8-10 million in sales tax revenue available that is no longer going to water debt,” Benson said. “And the commissioners that are on now and coming on will be on there through that whole process, so there will be good continuity.”

Benson acknowledged there has been much public concern voiced over needed improvements in streets, water and infrastructure. He said approving the Quality of Life initiative would take parks off the general budget, and free up more funds for infrastructure improvements.

“If the people commit to funding this, and vote in favor of it, it will open up a considerable amount of money currently going to parks and recreation for other projects,” Benson said. “We will have more money to spend on roads, streets and infrastructure, and that’s exactly where we intend to spend it.”

Benson said the size of the project, and the $50 million price tag, was set by evaluating past performance of the 7 mill ad valorem tax and current and projected sales tax returns.

Based on past performance of the 7 mill bridge tax, Benson said it is known the city would raise $30 million over a span of 20 years. And, he said, sales tax projections show the city raising at least the specified $20 million by a one-half cent sales tax hike for five years.

Benson said the bridge tax was designed to fund the specified bridge improvements and come up for renewal in time to fund the parks plan.

He said the bridge tax also served to demonstrate to the citizens what the city can do with dedicated project funding.

“We wanted the people to see what we could do with a simple five-year investment,” Benson said. “Instead of the seven bridges specified, you got 11, all completed under budget and on time.”

Now, Benson said it’s time to carry on that level of performance with the parks proposal.

“We designed the bridge tax to give us this opportunity, at this time, with this funding source,” Benson said.

He said the parks plan was split between ad valorem and sales tax to avoid raising the ad valorem tax, and to spread the burden for funding the project.

“Why should only the property owners pay for these improvements?” Benson said.

He said 42 percent of Enid’s sales tax revenue is “generated by people who don’t live here,” and the sales tax portion of the plan extends the funding source to people who visit and shop in Enid.

And, with record-setting sales tax returns, Benson said the time is right to capitalize on sales tax as a funding source.

“This is a wonderful opportunity to take advantage of this economy, and to invest in ourselves,” Benson said.

He remains optimistic city voters will approve the measure, and set Quality of Life in motion.

“We think we have this one opportunity to garner public commitment on this issue,” Benson said. “I think people recognize the importance of quality of life, and of having good public parks, venues and green spaces in our city.”

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