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Workshop Informs Residents on Potential Tax District Options in San Benito County

The San Benito County Parks and Recreation Commissioners held a public workshop March 13 to share different types of special districts that could be pursued to support community services as well as the funding mechanisms behind them.

Sky Woodruff and John Bakker, of Meyers Nave Law Firm, led the presentation and answered questions for those in attendance.

“Meyers Nave Law firm has 25 years of municipal finance and special district experience,” said Janelle Cox, a management analyst for San Benito County. “Tonight’s purpose is to learn about different types of districts, the pros and cons, and funding mechanisms.”

With about 40 people in attendance, including some county supervisors, Friends of the Library members, city and county staff members and some residents, Cox explained that there would be no policy discussions at the meeting. Any issues would be noted for a future agenda item.

“We are rich with recreation opportunities,” Cox said, noting Pinnacles National Monument, Hollister Hills State Vehicular Area, Fremont Peak and DeAnza Trail.

The top recreational activities desired by local residents in past surveys have included jogging, running, biking and hiking.

Cox said the group was including library services in the discussion because the San Benito County Free Library provides “passive recreation.”

“It serves as a support for schools and a safe place for kids to get together,” she said. “We are recognizing the need.”

The San Benito County supervisors have started discussions of closing an anticipated $5.3 million gap in the 2012-13 budget. The library is one of the discretionary spending items considered for cuts in the past – last year the supervisors considered completely shuttering the library.

The total cost of library services, and parks and recreation – which includes parks maintenance – is $954,000.

“We are looking at about $1 million and there are several ways to fund those services,” Cox said. “We need to look at all the options.”

Bakker, of Meyers Nave, led a presentation about the process for creating districts, along with pros and cons for each type.

“There is a lot of pressure on the general fund,” Bakker said. “Special districts are separate from the county so it could relieve general fund pressure.”

He explained that a library district could provide just library services, and a parks and recreation district can only provide parks and recreation services. But a community services district could provide both services in addition to other potential amenities. The districts can be dependent, meaning that an existing governing board, such as the board of supervisors, would also oversee the district. They can also be independent, meaning they have a separate elected board that oversees the district. An example of this would be the San Benito County Water District, which has its own board.

Woodruff went over the different revenue options to support a district, including taxes, assessments and fees.

“Special taxes are restricted for a specific purpose,” Woordruff said. “A public safety tax would fund police and fire. They need a two-thirds majority and may appear on a ballot in any election.”

“It is not worth pursuing unless you have had a conversation with the community,” Woodruff said, of moving forward with a ballot measure to approve a district and a revenue stream. “One thing that is helpful is the use of polls.”

He said using a poll firm can help decipher what the community will support and what they would not support. He also suggested community meetings, such as the workshop hosted last week. He said public funds can be used to provide information to community members before an item is placed on the ballot. After that, funds cannot be used to advocate for the measure. Employees and officials can advocate for it on their own time with their own funds.

After the presentation, a few residents asked questions about district boundaries. Since the cities have their own established parks and recreation departments, some residents wanted to know if they would have to pay into a countywide district.

Bakker and Woodruff said the district could be drawn in such a way as to exclude the cities, or a tax rate could be developed to charge less to residents in some areas. Cox noted that the district would likely support regional parks, which would be available for the use of city and county residents alike.

Steve Wittry, of the county public works, asked if it would be easy to increase the revenue as parks are completed and maintenance costs go up. Woodruff said a tax measure could be written in such a way that the tax can go up a specific amount upon the completion of other infrastructure.

“If you anticipate that, you can build it into the formulation,” Woodruff said.

Rich Inman, the county administrative officer, asked if the residents and officials decide to go with a community services district if they would need to go back for approval to fund other services such as fire service, for example. Woodruff said they would have to get approval from Local Agency Formation Commission, which approves a district proposal initially, but if property owners protest it could trigger an election to get voter approval.

“If the revenue is not enough to cover the new services, you would have to go back to the voters for additional revenue,” Woodruff said.

Joe Paul Gonzalez, the county clerk-auditor-recorder, said San Benito has had special taxes on the ballot before. In 1997, Measure G failed to get a two-thirds majority, with 61.9 percent of voters. In 1998, Measure 11 also failed.

“It’s good we are here tonight to discuss this,” he said. “It needs to be addressed with a different vehicle.”

Woodruff said it is not uncommon for communities to have a couple failed attempts before getting voters to approve a special district or tax.

“It is imperative for us to learn about the different ways of funding,” said Dan Dungy, chair of the county’s parks and recreation commission. “People are not just thinking about parks and recreations or libraries today.”

Please click here to read the article in its entirety on the San Benito County Today website.