Park and rec district proposes major change

Officials are proposing to change the North Whidbey Pool, Park and Recreation District.

Officials are proposing to change the North Whidbey Pool, Park and Recreation District to a form of government that would allow the collection of property taxes without having to ask voters to pass a levy on a regular basis.

A proposed “metropolitan park district,” with the same district boundaries, would have the benefit of bringing financial stability to the district, which runs a pool, a dog park and ball fields. On the other hand, the change would strip residents of some power over taxes.

Every six years, the North Whidbey Pool, Park and Recreation District needs a 60% supermajority to pass a levy to support the services, said district Commissioner James Marrow. Six years ago, the levy failed to reach this threshold twice.

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.

The change to a metropolitan park district can end up on the ballot through petitioning, said Oak Harbor City Councilmember Eric Marshall, but district officials can skip that process if it gets approval from both the city council and the Island County Board of Commissioners.

The North Whidbey Pool, Park and Recreation District’s yearly levy hasn’t changed in six years despite inflation, he said, and even if it was redesignated as a metropolitan park district, the increases will be marginal.

The Oak Harbor School District, the Navy, swim teams and private citizens use the pool, Marrow said. When it was shut down during COVID-19, the commissioners heard from many disappointed patrons.

“For over 40 years, multiple thousands of citizens across generations from every walk in life have used the pool,” Marrow said. “We look forward to another 40-plus years if the (metropolitan park district) is established.”

An item originally on the last Oak Harbor City Council agenda discussed the metropolitan park district request, but it was pulled so the discussion takes place when park and rec commissioners can attend.

The agenda item lists six alternatives to a metropolitan park district, including the establishment of a port district to absorb the duties of the park and rec district; a city metro district where the metropolitan park district would fall under council rule; a Whidbey Island Metro District to absorb both the North and South Whidbey Parks and Recreation districts; a public facilities district, which would take on an indoor sports facility; or a limited metropolitan park district, where the current duties would be reduced. Or the park and rec district could be kept as is.

Marrow, however, argued that most of the ideas are not feasible as they either shoehorn the district’s plans into the city’s, create a higher levy tax, step on other entity’s toes or don’t address the needs the North Whidbey Pool, Park and Recreation District currently must meet.

The park and rec district officials will bring this proposal to council at the March 19 meeting, and Marrow hopes to have it on the ballot as soon as the August primary election.

At the end of the day, it comes down to what the people of North Whidbey want to do, Marshall said. Council approval is just one step.

“I’m one that believes that the people need to be the ones that have the say in this,” he said. “We’ll see how it goes.”