This spring, voters will decide whether to support or defeat another tax burden for the already strapped taxpayers of Great Falls.
The park district resolution passed at the February 6 commission meeting. Voters will be asked on May 8 whether they’re willing to create and fund a Great Falls park district. The discussion at the commission meeting took an interesting turn when Commissioner Bronson chose to comment on park lands.
Speaking about the parks, Commissioner Bronson mentioned our city’s founder Paris Gibson was a strong proponent of park lands. “Gibson realized that when you construct a city you have to have those open spaces…I would certainly hope that anybody who has concerns about the fees that are being requested keeps Mr. Gibson’s vision in mind when they go forward…”
To that I would reply that open spaces are quite a bit different from highly developed and maintained parks. The city of Great Falls has 57 parks. Some are merely open spaces but most have some degree of development requiring maintenance. Seems like the commissioner is comparing apples to oranges. Not as much maintenance cost with the open spaces Gibson envisioned versus developed parks.
Also, times have changed and some parks are underutilized. Video games, organized sports and the internet seem to rule the youth of our society. Whereas I spent most of my childhood outdoors nearly every waking hour that I wasn’t in school, I really don’t see that happening as much now with our youth.
Next, Bronson spent a little time blasting the state legislature for forcing municipalities to put questions like park district creation on the same ballot as school district elections. The way he spoke about the legislature, he made it sound like their whole purpose was to put a monkey wrench into everything Montana municipalities try to do.
“This is another example of how the legislature, for reasons totally unknown, always manages to make it difficult for us, in the cities and towns, to govern our own affairs, even to the point of whether we can ask the question or put the question before our voters; do you want to do something like this?”
Commissioner Bronson added, “It’s unfortunate we have to be put in a position of competition with our friends in the public school system.”
“Yes, I guess since the Great Falls Public School District is considering asking for money this May for operating expenses, people are less likely to want to vote for two tax increases on the May ballot.”
Yes, I guess since the Great Falls Public School District is considering asking for money this May for operating expenses, people are less likely to want to vote for two tax increases on the May ballot.
Bronson went on to bring up a recent letter to the editor that questioned why the city can’t just sell unused park lands. He went on to explain why that wasn’t feasible.
“Trust me, if our staff, which supervises our resources, honestly believed that was a workable option, they would have come to us and made that suggestion,” he said. “The reason they have not is that they know, as the commission does, that it will not work…
Nothing probably brings out more opposition from the neighborhood councils, the neighbors in those areas, the parents of school children, than to even have a discussion about that concept….
They know as well as we do, sure you could put a piece of parkland on the market, but we have to have it appraised, the buyer has to pay at least the appraised value, and then what are they going to put…what use are they going to put it to. It’s in a residential area, if the suggestion is that it’s going to become commercial or something else, imagine the war whoops from the neighbors, again that you’re taking a piece of open space and converting it to some kind of commercial or business use in their backyard….
Staff has already considered that in the past and it’s been rejected because it’s not a viable option….”
So then why did the city commission just sell off a small portion of Lions Park recently to an adjacent landowner for business purposes?
The city commission voted unanimously to pass Ordinance 3184, which rezoned a 12 feet wide by 132.5 feet long strip of Lions Park from POS Parks and Open Space to C-2 General Commercial, and sell that land to PBA Properties, LLC.
Okay, so it’s a seemingly inconsequential little piece of land—but it’s still parkland, isn’t it? It appears the line in the sand that Bronson claims the commission and city staff won’t cross to sell parkland isn’t a line after all. It’s also not the first time parklands have been considered for sale.
Previous park master plans have identified certain parklands as surplus and the city subsequently sold some of them. For example, the city commission voted to sell a little over two acres to Meadowlark Country Club back in June 1999. In 2003, city staff recommended sale of the park land Block 1 and 2, Park Place Addition to Plains Grains Limited Partnership and the city commission approved the sale in May 2003.
There weren’t any “war whoops” on those properties, so indeed some parklands are sold without protest from the public.
In 2013, the city commission, including Commission Bronson looked at possible sales of city parkland during a presentation about the Great Falls park system at the commission work session on February 19, 2013.
From the meeting minutes:
“Park and Recreation Director Marty Basta provided a PowerPoint presentation on the Great Falls park system. He noted that many parks were acquired as an obligation by a developer to provide park land as part of the development….
Commissioner Jones would like to pursue the possible sale of the Clara property and Boston Heights Park, and either enforcement of encroachments or the possible sale of the West Hill property….
In addition to the recommendations made by Commissioner Jones, Commissioner Bronson believes the possible sale of the Skyline Addition property should also be pursued…” (emphasis added)
As is obvious from all of the above, the city has entertained selling underutilized parks and surplus park land in the past—so why not in conjunction with the latest park master plan? I haven’t even seen any parkland identified as surplus or underutilized in the latest plan. Why not?
For many of us squeezed by an ever-increasing tax burden, it comes down to this—would we rather see another tax increase or the sale of underutilized/surplus parkland?
The city of Great Falls has also leased out parkland to other entities, including the pasta plant and Great Falls Public Schools. Perhaps the park director and his staff should take a look at those leases to determine whether they are really at market value.