Mountain Recreation mulls bringing $60 million ask back this spring after election loss
Recreation district officials look to tweak property tax increase proposal while retaining its community center vision
It has been two weeks since voters in the Mountain Recreation district rejected a proposal to increase property taxes to finance more than $60 million in facilities upgrades.
That loss still stings, district officials say.
“We lost by just 261 votes. It wasn’t a flat-out rejection. It was a really close race,” said Scott Robinson, Mountain Recreation’s superintendent of business operations.
Mountain Recreation’s Ballot Question 6A proposed a 4.404 mill levy increase to generate $3.8 million in additional annual funding beginning in 2022. The proposed property-tax increase was estimated to cost $32 per year per $100,000 of home value — approximately $217 more per year for the average home in the district. In the final tally, the ballot question netted 3,939 “no” votes and 3,678 votes in favor: a 51.71% to 48.29% margin.
As they contemplate those figures, Mountain Rec officials say they are determined to delve into the results and determine what it will take to move people to support a comprehensive plan for facility upgrades.
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“We are on a fact-finding mission. We are ‘post-morteming’ and thinking about what we would do differently,” said Mike McCormack, a member of the Mountain Recreation Board of Directors. “Then, we can go again and have a reasonable chance of success.”
Although voters didn’t support this particular proposal, Mountain Recreation officials remain committed to the vision that fueled it. That vision includes evolving existing recreation facilities in Eagle, Gypsum and Edwards into community centers that address local residents’ recreation and larger health needs.
“We want to be more than just a youth sports league. We want to be something where everyone can come and engage in their version of recreation,” Robinson said. “I don’t see us changing what our vision as a district is about or how we can deliver our services.”
Robinson said Mountain Rec is turning its attention to finding out the why behind the election numbers — why people voted “yes” and why they voted “no.”
“The top thing that we are hearing from the community is certainly some folks were concerned about the costs,” Robinson said.
Additional issues included in-district versus out-of-district program pricing and a desire for a sunset clause for the tax increase.
“Of the three, the one that will take the most work is the cost piece,” Robinson said.
McCormack concurred. He noted Mountain Rec could include a sunset clause in its next tax-increase request and could tweak its user-fee rules.
“For the in-district versus out-of-district pricing, the people who were being hurt the most were disadvantaged kids who live just outside of the district,” McCormack said. “But I think we can figure out a compassionate workaround.”
The suggestion that user fees should increase to finance the expansion program just isn’t practical, McCormack and Robinson said.
“We would be talking about an incredible increase in fees to fund the cost of participating in our programs,” Robinson said. “The recreation district is meant to be affordable. That is why it is in place. We are not in it to make money; we are in it to provide a valuable service to the community.”
“Recreation is community-funded, just like streets are community-funded and schools are community-funded,” McCormack said. “It is an important upgrade for the quality of life for people who live here.”
The $60 million question
Before this fall’s ballot question went to the voters, the Mountain Rec board did extensive research for its upgrade proposal. The scope of work proposed was estimated at around $80 million.
“We then ‘fundraised’ $6 million in 12 months to show community support,” Robinson said. “We felt we could close the gap with grant and other funding.”
But those grant dollars are hard to secure until the district has a dedicated funding source for a construction project, Robinson continued.
“There are a lot of grants that are available to help us close the gap, once we get voter approval,” he said. “We have met with various organizations, and they say they want community buy-in before they will write a check.”
McCormack noted that cutting back the financial scope of the project would likely make it less attractive to voters.
“It’s a big rec district. It encompasses three major areas,” he explained. “We have to have something for everyone, which makes the price tag big.”
Delaying the project will also have an impact, Robinson said. Because construction costs are rising, Mountain Rec expects costs will rise 10%-15% if construction launches a year later than planned. The numbers continue to spiral upward from there, he noted.
As they look at the ballot question defeat, Mountain Rec officials believe local residents still want upgraded facilities and expanded programs. They are committed to two actions: making changes to their request that will tip the issue in their favor and bringing the issue back before the voters.
The question is when.
The earliest date that Mountain Recreation can present a new ballot question is May.
“I think there is some support on the board for a May election. There is also some opposition to it,” McCormack said. “We have to talk about it.”
“If we are looking at a May election, it means firing up the engines in December,” Robinson said. “That is the type of discussion we are having right now with our team.”
Even though the issue lost at the polls, McCormack and Robinson noted the Mountain Rec plan generated strong community support.
“I am really grateful for how close it was. A lot of people supported it,” McCormack said. “If we had just changed 135 votes from no to yes, we would have won.”
That’s the challenge ahead, he said.
“I’m in favor of going to the voters in May. We should take advantage of the work that has been done,” McCormack said. “I don’t think our belief in the substance of the proposal has been dimmed at all. We just need to be more confident about what our community will support and what it won’t.”