Oak Harbor City Council supports putting ‘metropolitan district’ measure on ballot

The measure to form the Metropolitan Pool, Park and Recreation District will be on the ballot.

With a five-vote majority, the Oak Harbor City Council approved a resolution that supports adding a measure to the primary ballot to form the North Whidbey Metropolitan Pool, Park and Recreation District.

Members of the board for the North Whidbey Parks, Pool and Recreation District are advocating for the change to a metropolitan district, which they say will stabilize finances. The board can skip a petitioning process to get the measure on the ballot by getting support from the city council and the Board of Island County Commissioners.

As director of maintenance and pool operations for the parks and rec district, Councilmember Shane Hoffmire abstained from the vote, and Councilmember Bryan Stucky voted against skipping the petitioning process.

The change would allow the parks and rec district to collect property taxes without having to ask voters to pass a levy on a regular basis. Creation of a metropolitan park district requires only a 50% majority vote, after which the district’s legislative body may impose permanent property taxes, according to Municipal Research and Services Center. Like other local governmental entities, the levy would be limited to an annual increase of 1% without the vote of the people.

“I’ve heard some people say, ‘Oh, you’re losing control,’ but you’re not really,” said Jay Cochran, executive director of the North Whidbey Pool, Parks and Recreation District, at Tuesday’s meeting. “You’re still voting. It just more represents what your community actually wants.”

The John Vanderzicht Memorial Pool is used for lap swimming, youth recreation, swim lessons, physical therapy, military training, military recreation, swim teams, special Olympics and more. In 2017, the levy failed, and the pool had to shut its doors. After, the community rallied to get more votes to open it again, Cochran said. The goal is to have guaranteed funding to not go to this extreme in the future.

Reopening the pool cost $80,000 in maintenance, she said, which is more than it would have cost if it never closed. The district had to retrain staff and is still recovering from the closure to this day.

“When you look at the history of our votes, even when we fail we still beat the simple majority,” she said. “That’s telling us that the community does want that.”

Other communities that have gone through a similar structure change or otherwise have developed metropolitan districts include Gig Harbor, East Wenatchee, Bainbridge Island, Pullman, North Bend, Des Moines and Fall City, Cochran said.

Yet Stucky questioned many of the comparisons. Peninsula Metropolitan District near Gig Harbor is taxed around the city and not in the city, he said. Gig Harbor has a small parks and recreation department which doesn’t offer the same services as Oak Harbor. East Wenatchee and Bainbridge Island have no parks and recreation departments as part of the city governments, which Oak Harbor does have. Pullman Metropolitan District taxes similarly to Oak Harbor, but it reports to the Pullman city council, not the county commissioners.

Des Moines Metropolitan district is more comparable, he said, but they only have a pool and not other parks and fields like North Whidbey.

“What I didn’t see is two totally viable parks and rec districts, a city within a metropolitan district, both of them being viable and operating,” he said.

While Tuesday’s decision wasn’t about inter-department resourcing, these weeds ultimately prevented a unanimous vote.

A city parks and rec department typically offers pools, dog parks and fields without a separate district, said parks and recreation Commissioner Tom Jones.

“I’m not sure that splitting the baby and having two parks and recreation organizations for a community of our size,” he said. “It doesn’t make a lot of sense to me.”

Jones posed the question, is the goal to sustain the services or sustain the organization?

“If the answer is to sustain the service, then I would have input,” he said. “I have extensive background in merging recreation programs in the military, consolidating different departments, and there’s been benefit to that in every opportunity we’ve done that. There’s been operational benefits, there’s been financial benefits and there’s been customer convenience and customer benefit as well.”

The 2020 Census has Oak Harbor at 24,622 residents and North Whidbey’s district at 40,180. If the duties of the North Whidbey parks and recreation district went to the city, all the funding would go to Oak Harbor residents and not serve the greater area, Councilmember Jim Woessner said.

“It really doesn’t have anything to do about the City of Oak Harbor parks versus North Whidbey parks,” he said. “This is about serving our community, and as council members, that’s what we’re up here to do. We’re not up here to protect our turf.”

The question really comes down to if the council is going to send the parks and rec district out “all summer long” to gather 6,000 signatures to get the change on the ballot, which would be easy to get, Woessner said, or if the council would rather they spend their time operating the pool and providing services to the community.

Long-term, the organizations need to look at resource combination options, Stucky said.

According to both Cochran and Oak Harbor parks and rec director Brian Smith, combination is possible but tricky.

“It would be just a different animal,” Smith said. “I guess the district then would be a funding mechanism for the city. It wouldn’t really go the other direction.”

Addressing the metropolitan district as its own entity, Stucky would prefer if they still needed a 60% vote to pass a levy, at least for the first one, he said, while acknowledging the need of the pool.

“I’m definitely pro-pool,” he said. “I go to the pool all the time. My wife recently discovered water aerobics, and she would be very angry with me if it shut down.”

Councilmember Christopher Wiegenstein, who has used the pool since 1983, voted in favor of leaving the decision to voters. If the change goes through, he said, it’s a brand-new district, meaning the current board members will have to run a campaign for re-election.

Mayor Pro Tem Tara Hizon shared Stucky’s hesitancy. As the city is about to conduct a feasibility study to itemize community needs, it’s a hard decision without that information, she said. The new district may limit the city in the future, and there’s no way to know at this time.

Her approval was not an endorsement of the change but an allowance of the choice to be presented to voters, she said.

Following the vote, North Whidbey parks and rec will meet with county commissioners who will likely need to vote as well, said district Commissioner James Marrow.

The filing deadline to appear on the August primary ballot is in May.