Trees, trails, T-Ball and … taxes? On Election Day, Calloway County residents will check yes or no on a new tax proposed by the Murray-Calloway County Parks Department.
The referendum up for vote is a proposed tax of five cents for every $100 of taxable assets. That’s $50 for every $100,000 and $500 for every million. Taxable property includes real estate, business inventory, automobiles and farming equipment, among others.
Under the current system, the Murray-Calloway County Parks system is jointly funded by the City of Murray and the Calloway County fiscal court. For the fiscal year 2014-15, the City of Murray appropriated $161,100 to the Parks Department, while the county appropriated $129,478.50. That gives the Parks Department an annual working budget of approximately $290,000. If the referendum is passed, the estimated net revenue from the tax is $1.1 million. The referendum would create a new taxing district strictly for the parks, so the money would not be used by or for anyone else.
Tab Brockman, director of the Parks Department, said the tax is the only obvious way forward for funding. He said many people are put off by a tax, but there is no other solution for the parks’ needs.
“Stable and consistent funding doesn’t exist under the current scenario,” Brockman said. “The city and county are not mandated to fund us, so if this doesn’t pass, they could decide to only give us $100,000 this year.”
The Murray-Calloway County park system consists of three parks: Chestnut Park, which is about 70 years old, Central Park, about 40 years old, and Bee Creek, about 30 years old.
The parks have basketball courts, soccer, baseball and softball fields, an amphitheater, a swimming pool, spray park, dog park, walking trails, pavilions, playgrounds and a skate park.
Brockman said the current budget is not sufficient for the level of maintenance and improvements needed to keep the parks up to the standards of the community.
He said his first four priorities for renovations and improvements are fixing or replacing the community pool, lights for the soccer, softball and baseball fields, road maintenance and making the park more easily accessible to the disabled, as required by federal law.
The bathroom stalls are not Americans with Disibilities Act compliant and much of the park system is difficult or impossible to navigate in a wheelchair.
Brockman said the $1.1 million would allow the Parks Department to improve upon what the parks already offer. It would be up to the parks board and the community to decide how to spend it. It would allow for new or renovated bathrooms, concession stands and parking lots, as well as improving upon the sport complexes within the parks.
“At the end of the day, this referendum is about how important the parks are to the community,” Brockman said. “This is an issue that will impact our community, positively or negatively, for many years to come.”
While the park tax is a big issue for many in the community, some people simply haven’t heard about it. Breanna Bethel, junior from Murray, didn’t know about it. When she learned about the referendum, she was opposed.
Bethel said she thinks the parks are fine as they are. She takes the children she babysits to Chestnut Park in the summer and said she’s always thought the parks were nice.
“If it was really falling apart or if they had a specific project in mind I would gladly vote the tax in, but as it is now I see no need to pay another tax,” Bethel said.
Bethel said she believes people will be deterred from voting yes on the referendum since it is one more tax.
“But then again I’m a poor college student,” she said.
Former President Tim Miller supports the tax because he believes the park system needs to expand and improve in order to better serve the community. Miller, who spent years teaching accounting, said he generally dislikes taxes because oftentimes it’s unclear where the money will go.
“I don’t see how anyone can argue against a tax that directly supports youth programs,” he said.
Miller said the benefits of improving the park system reach beyond creating a wholesome place for his children and grandchildren to play. He said when corporations are looking to come into a community, they look at schools, hospitals and recreational activities, like the parks.
“I really feel that the park system is important for tourism and growth,” Miller said. “If it (the parks referendum) passes, in the long run it’s going to add so much to this area that it’ll be worth the additional cost.”
Miller said many people, for and against the referendum, have shared opinions with him. One issue he has heard repeatedly is county residents thinking the parks are only city parks.
“I can’t think of too many people that wouldn’t use the parks, either directly or indirectly,” Miller said. “All ‘Calloway Countians’ are going to benefit.”
All Calloway Countians don’t share that view, however. At a Town and Gown meeting Tuesday night in Wrather West Kentucky Museum, residents of the city and county showed up to voice their support, or their distaste, for the proposed tax.
Town and Gown is a partnership between the City of Murray and Murray State. Mark Welch, coordinator of the Town and Gown partnership, hosted the event, which was set up as an open forum for comments and questions.
Approximately 40 people showed up for the meeting, and the opinions seemed to be split.
Calloway County Judge Executive Larry Elkins said he does not plan to vote for the tax.
If the referendum passes with a simple majority on Nov. 4, the budget for the Parks Department would increase between 300 and 400 percent.
Elkins said if that happens, the county budget he will present to the Fiscal Court Magistrates for consideration will not include money for the Parks Department. Whether the City of Murray continues its funding of the Parks Department will be determined by the Murray City Council.
“There are currently three county-wide taxing districts in Calloway County: the library, health and the Extension Service,” Elkins said.
If the referendum passed, the parks would be the fourth taxing district in the county.
Elkins said the Murray-Calloway County park system is one of the nicest in the region, and the public and private partnership for park funding has so far succeeded in every way.
“It has amenities that you won’t find in a lot of parks. In 2013, the park was voted Outstanding Parks Department by the Kentucky Recreation and Parks Society,” he said.
Elkins said organizations campaigning for the referendum have distributed with a “Save our Parks” theme, “… apparently believing that rather than clearly explaining what the long range goals are, it would be more effective to scare people,” he said. “Our park does not need saving. We will have a great park regardless of whether the referendum is approved.”
Story by Kate Russell, Staff writer