Madison Valley parks and rec district off table – for now

Madison County Commissioners rescinded the resolution to put the funding and formation of a Madison Valley Parks and Recreation District before voters in May after an existing parks district was discovered within the proposed district.

The move came Thursday during a special meeting to take up the issue, which was tabled at the commissioner’s regular Tuesday meeting. The issue was tabled after questions arose about the problem created by the existing district and proposed amendments to the resolution.

In December, commissioners voted 2-1 to put the Madison Valley Parks and Recreation District before voters on the Ennis School District’s May 3 ballot. The district boundaries would be the same as the school district and the ballot measure would ask voters for 3 mills to fund parks and recreation projects.

The proposal had been in the works for almost three years, said Jim Hart, Madison County Commissioner from Commission District 3, which encompasses the Madison Valley and Big Sky area.

However, Big Sky residents have always been resistant to the idea of being included in a Madison Valley Parks and Recreation District. Since December a community group comprised of Big Sky and Madison Valley residents have been trying to work on a compromise.

Then last month county officials discovered the existing parks district, which was formed by Madison County voters in Big Sky in 1988. The district includes three sections of land at the heart of Madison County’s share of the Big Sky area. The 1988 parks district passed by a vote of 12-4 and would tax property owners at the rate of 10 mills.

However, the county never assessed taxes for the 1988 parks district and nothing every really happened. But since the district was never removed, it still exists and to put another parks and recreation district on top of it would be illegal, said Chris Christensen, Madison County Attorney.

On Thursday, commissioners met with Christensen and Madison County Clerk and Recorder Peggy Kaatz Stemler for two hours to discuss their options.

New commissioner Dan Happel wasn’t in office at the time of the December vote and was troubled with the idea of pushing forward with something that looked questionable.

“It’s a lot easier to admit a mistake and back away from it than to keep going and make a bigger mistake out if it,” he said.

The impetus for the meeting Thursday was a Friday deadline for Stemler to have the ballot measure ready. It became obvious to the commissioners that if the resolution passed in December was illegal because of the existing parks district, than the only choice they had was to repeal the original resolution and start over.

With the December resolution off the table, commissioners would have some time to form another resolution that didn’t include the existing parks district and still get it out to the voters this year for approval, Stemler said. However, it would likely happen in a special election.

Also, commissioners found out last week that even if the parks district was implemented this year, it wouldn’t be assessed on property taxes until 2012.

At 3 p.m. commissioners continued the meeting from Tuesday before a handful of interested citizens from Big Sky and Ennis.

“We appreciate your patience with this process, one I think everybody involved and interested in wants to make sure, if it’s done, it’s done right,” commissioner Dave Schulz told the people at the meeting.

Karen Crowley from Ennis asked Schulz about what rescinding the December resolution would mean for the formation of the parks district in the future.

“If you’re rescinding this resolution does that open the door to coming up with some other ideas, other (parks district) boundaries?” she asked.

Once the December resolution was off the table, other options could move forward, Schulz replied. His hope is that the process would continue to include all interested parties.

“Hopefully we can back up, revisit where we are and move forward together,” he said.

Steve Johnson from Big Sky asked the commissioners how citizens from Big Sky could be part of the process in developing a future resolution.

The best option would be continuing to be engaged in the public meetings that have been ongoing, Hart said.

“We had some questions as to whether Big Sky was involved or not and to my thought they were,” he said.

After the meeting Katie Morrison, executive director for the Big Sky Community Corporation, was pleased the December resolution was repealed.

The goal for Big Sky residents is to have their own parks district, which it appears they have, she said. Now they need to find out more about the existing district and see what can be done there.

However, being part of Madison Valley Parks District doesn’t make much sense for Big Sky residents, since they already have their own recreation projects and plans to look after and pursue.

“For sure the goal is to have a Big Sky-wide parks district,” Morrison said.

However, having a parks district that only includes the Madison Valley may prove to be non-productive, said Hart. To raise any useful amount of money, the district would have to levy too many mills.

“I think the financial burden is obviously going to be larger and I don’t know if people are going to be willing to pay that,” he said.

The old resolution that called for taxing people 3 mills for the parks district would raise about $180,000 a year. Big Sky property owners accounted for about $80,000 of that money.

Crowley has been working with the citizen committee on the parks district proposal, in part on behalf of the Madison Valley Aquatics Center, which would presumably benefit from a parks district with some funding help to get their center built.

“We spent a lot of time trying to make it equitable to everybody,” Crowley said.

Despite the set back, it’s still important for the aquatic center that a parks district is formed.

The aquatic center is getting ready to launch a capital campaign and have had some large donors express interest in helping fund the center, providing there is some level of public funding, she said.

Lynn Leeming from Ennis is also disappointed that the December resolution had to be rescinded.

“I kind of feel at this point there’s no way the other side of the hill is going to work with us in any way, shape or form even though it would benefit everybody,” Leeming said.

She is also frustrated that Big Sky citizens are fighting to get out of the district. They are Madison County citizens just like the folks in Madison Valley.

“When you’re in the county, you’re in the county,” she said.

If the county allows them out of the parks district it would set a bad precedence that could impact tax revenue for the county and the Ennis School District in the future, Leeming said.

“It’s a precedence that would be set if they pull out of this,” she said.

The next step in the process wasn’t clear after Thursday’s meeting. However, Schulz said the commissioners need to figure out what the 1988 parks district means to the process moving forward.

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