Westerville News & Public Opinion

Nov. 4 ballot

Westerville voters may see parks tax issue

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Since 1999, one-quarter of 1 percent of the city of Westerville's income tax has been funneled to building parks projects, thanks to the Parks Recreation and Open Space tax approved by voters in August 1998.

That vote put the 0.25-percent income tax in place through Dec. 31, 2020 and built the Westerville Community Center, among a list of more than $30 million worth of parks projects.

Now, more than six years before the initial tax is set to expire, the Westerville Parks and Recreation Department is hoping to extend it -- with no additional percentage amount -- for another 20 years, guaranteeing the funds until 2040.

A resolution to put the issue on the November ballot was introduced last week and will have two more readings before a vote by Westerville City Council.

The legislation also declares an emergency, which means if approved by council the resolution would take effect immediately, rather than in 30 days. It also means the legislation would not be subject to a referendum.

Officials said declaring an emergency is necessary to assure that -- if council approves the resolution -- it will make the November ballot.

"If we don't waive that 30-day period, we might not get it down to the Franklin County Board of Elections in time for November," said Randy Auler, Westerville Parks and Recreation director.

Auler told council at the resolution's first reading June 3 the renewal is necessary now to keep the award-winning parks department operating at its current level.

"The request is being made now because it will enable us to effectively plan for the future, as well as line up financing," Auler said.

"Many of our projects require long-term financing that's typically a 20-year period," he said.

"In addition, it enables us to leverage resources for other projects, such as seeking grant dollars and seeking foundation support from foundations and nonprofits."

Auler said those grant funds and other resources that are obtained using leverage from the tax have totaled nearly $7 million since its introduction.

Annual revenue from the tax has grown along with Westerville the last 15 years.

In 1999 the 0.25 percent tax produced $3.1 million; In 2013, it produced more than $5 million. The revenue projection for 2018 is nearly $6 million.

The Highlands Park Aquatic Center and the Millstone Creek Park are some of the more recent projects funded through the tax.

In 2012, Parks and Recreation began developing a new PROS Master Plan, "to guide and meet the community's parks and recreation needs." Last year, a lengthy survey process showed the city that 93 percent of citizens use parks and recreation services and 85 percent of residents feel the department's use of the PROS income tax is "good" or "excellent."

The plan also outlined areas the community would like to see improved, and helped to shape the direction of projects in the future.

Atop the list is an addition to the Westerville Community Center, 350 N. Cleveland Ave., to add space to incorporate the Westerville Senior Center, now housed in a separate building at 310 W. Main St.

Expanded multi-use trails across the city and a series of activity parks along Alum Creek also are rated high in the updated master plan, which can be viewed at the city website, westerville.org.

Auler said the PROS tax extension needs to happen to meet residents' desire for further parks improvements.

"If we're not successful in getting this in place, the amount of capital projects we can do is going to significantly decline," Auler said.

The department's concern now is residents will think the city is proposing to increase the tax, which isn't the case.

A "yes" vote in November would make the 0.25 percent PROS tax effective for another 20 years, but City Council Chairman Craig Treneff said he hopes residents remember there is an expiration date.

"It's important for the public to realize that this tax still has a sunset built into it," Treneff said.

"You could make a good policy argument that this should be a permanent tax, but that's not the direction that this resolution takes. It simply extends it for the same term as the original term and a future generation of voters will be able to decide at that point in time if they'd like to continue."

A second reading of the PROS tax extension resolution is set for June 17 and a third reading and council vote is set for July 1. If council approves it, voters will decide the issue in the voting booths Nov. 4.

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