By ERIC A. HOWALD
Of the Keizertimes

Imagine having a $793,000 pot of money to spend on improving parks in the city of Keizer, but the only way to use it was to come up with another $6.1 million from other sources.

In the simplest terms, that’s the dilemma the city is facing when it comes to using existing system development charges (SDCs) to improve Keizer parks. The topic was the center of discussions at the Keizer Parks and Recreation Advisory Board meeting Tuesday, June 14, as board members wrestled with the possibility of creating a dedicated parks fund by establishing a parks district within the city.

If the idea gains traction, Keizer residents would likely see the additional cost in the form of a surcharge added to utility bills.

Bill Lawyer, Keizer Public Works director, was on hand to answer questions about budgeting for parks as members of the board prepare to survey residents regarding needs and wants when it comes to recreation in the city.

KEIZERTIMES/Andrew Jackson

KEIZERTIMES/Andrew Jackson

Here is the lowdown on the parks budget as it currently exists:

• Parks comprise a minimum of 2.5 percent of the city’s total general fund. That money, which comes from the same fund that pays for police officers, is primarily used for maintenance of existing facilities and amenities.

• Parks also benefit from rental fees paid for the orchard and residence at Keizer Rapids Park and for a cell tower at Bair Park. It amounts to about $50,000 per annum, but only $10,000 per year is earmarked for improvements.

• The lion’s share of money available to improve parks comes from system development charges paid to the city when new homes and apartments are built. The city has two different SDCs accounts, one for fees collected before April 2009 and one of charges collected since that time. In both cases, the SDCs come with strings attached regarding where the funds can be used and in what amounts they can be used.

The regulations on fees collected before 2009 are somewhat more lax. Depending on when and where the money was collected, anywhere between 30 and 80 percent of fund can be used to improve parks of any size. The city still has almost $170,000 remaining in old SDC funds.

The larger pot of money is that collected since April 2009, about $793,000. The problem is that those fees can only be used to improve parks, not for maintenance or repair. On top of that, SDC fees can only be used to cover 13.6 percent of the costs of any improvement. For example, say city officials approve the installment of a new $100,000 play structure at your neighborhood park. SDC funds could only pay for $13,600 of the cost. The remaining $86,400 would have to come out of other parts of the city budget or through grants or sponsorships, which would also take staff time to track down and apply for – at a time when the budget is still stretched fairly thin on Keizer’s low property tax rate.

KEIZERTIMES/Andrew Jackson

KEIZERTIMES/Andrew Jackson

One of the most recent uses of new SDC money was $50,000 to “sweeten the proposal” for a grant application to upgrade surfaces at Keizer Rapids Park Big Toy and to build the first restrooms with flushing toilets in any city park. The percentage permitted for use on new projects is set by state law.

Given all that, a dedicated parks fund is seen as the key to unlock to door on using the money that’s already been collected.

“We have 13.6 available, but we don’t have the 86.4 percent to make things happen,” said parks board member Donna Bradley.

The board is considering adding the dedicated parks fee to utility bills. It would be collected per Keizer dwelling. No amount has been set, but a $2 month fee ($4 per billing cycle) would amount to an extra $355,200 in annual dedicated parks funding. At that amount, it would still take more than 16 years to unlock all of the existing $793,000 in new SDC funds.

Parks board members wrestled with the phrasing of questions on a survey they plan to send to residents for input on the issue.

Citing the last time the city tried to enact a utility fee – on cell phones in 2011, the proposal went down in flames  – board member, and former city councilor, Jim Taylor opposed using any funds collected on park improvements.

“I am adamant that this be maintenance only because people want it to be specific about how it’s going to help them. We’ve been down this road before,” Taylor said. “We need a ‘have to’ list not a ‘want to’ list. The maintenance is very, very difficult to get funding for and if we can take care of the maintenance, then we can go out and look for other projects.”

Parks board member JT Hager disagreed with that stance.

“We are already being frustrated with restrictions and we need the latitude to look at the funds and what needs doing,” Hager said. “I don’t think you’re giving enough credit to the intelligence on the (parks) board. I haven’t seen any indication or suggestion that anything (we’ve approved) wasn’t needed or wasn’t an improvement.”