Ferndale council to ask city voters to help pay for parks and trails

The City Council will once again move toward asking voters to create a new taxing district within the city’s boundaries to raise money for parks and trails in Ferndale.

The council voted 6-1 on Monday, Dec. 15, to move ahead with the idea of putting a metropolitan park district on the November 2015 ballot. Councilwoman Cathy Watson was the lone no vote.

“I didn’t want to go to the voters next year for anything. My main concern is that we’ve gone to the voters every year for something,” Watson said in an interview. “I’d like to take a year off.”

Plus, she said voters likely will soon be asked to pay for a new Whatcom County Jail and new Ferndale High School, and she didn’t want the city to be asking for more money at the same time.

The council’s decision on Monday was the same one it made in February and then put on hold in March so the city’s volunteer Parks, Recreation and Trails Advisory Board could weigh in and make a recommendation to the City Council.

The advisory board’s recommendation was to put before voters a measure to create a metropolitan park district using the larger boundaries of the Ferndale School District, which would raise more money because the tax base would be larger. The board also recommended that property taxes should be raised by 50 cents per $1,000 of assessed value to bring in money for parks and trails.

Councilman Brent Goodrich supported the advisory board.

“I am for taking this to the public and letting them vote, just because I have seen the work the parks board has done on this behind the scenes,” said Goodrich, who is a liaison to the advisory board. “I think it’s been very well worked out by the parks board.”

But the City Council voted down the advisory board’s recommendation to put before voters a metropolitan park district with larger boundaries of the Ferndale School District, opting instead for city boundaries.

The city has been looking for additional sources of revenue for its green space.

Residents often ask the city for more amenities, including playground and recreation equipment in neighborhood parks, as well as trails linking the parks, but there isn’t money in the budget for such projects, city leaders have said. The city spends about $450,000 a year now just to maintain Ferndale parks and green spaces.

The City Council still must approve a resolution before the measure can go on the ballot.

If formed, the Metropolitan Park District would be a separate governing body from the City Council and would have its own budget.

While voters would decide the fate of a metropolitan park district, they wouldn’t vote directly on how much to raise their property taxes. That would be up to five park district commissioners, which voters also would elect. It’s expected that those commissioners would tell voters whether they would raise property tax rates by 25 cents, 50 cents or 75 cents — the increments allowed by state law — per $1,000 of a home’s assessed value.

Ferndale leaders also would let voters know their preferences. Neither the City Council nor the advisory board like the highest rate.

Here’s how much more the owner of a home assessed at $275,000, which is closer to the average home price in Ferndale, would pay at a rate of:

• 25 cents: $68.75 a year, which would raise $274,238 annually for the district.

• 50 cents: $137.50 a year, raising $603,324 annually.

• 75 cents: $206.25 a year, raising $822,714 annually.

Before voting, council members hashed over a number of concerns about having a metropolitan park district, including the proposal to create one using the larger school district boundaries.

Among the issues:

• Voters living within the school district but outside the city — such as those in Custer, near Blaine or on Lummi Island — may vote against its creation, despite assurances from the advisory board that those residents and their children come to Ferndale to use its parks;

• a majority of commissioners could be elected from outside the city and end up giving short shrift to Ferndale’s green spaces;

• the City Council would have no say in what the tax rate would be.

Despite those worries, the council decided to give a metropolitan park district a look. But at least two council members, Watson and Jon Mutchler, also wanted to consider an alternative of going to voters with a Greenways levy to pay for parks and green spaces, akin to what Bellingham voters have approved.

“We really do need more money for our parks,” Watson said.

Such a proposal would depend on whether the majority of the City Council wanted it and, if that was the case, she would prefer to have a Greenways levy go before voters after 2015.