A plan to have one of the largest regional parks in the county completed as early as 2009 will be discussed at the end of this month by the Oro Valley town council.
But while it's seemingly unanimous among council members that the Naranja Town Site park is an important project for the town to begin, how to pay for it is open to debate, a debate that will include talk about imposing Oro Valley's first property tax.
The Naranja Town Site, a 213-acre chunk of land that lies between Naranja Drive and Tangerine Road, was planned by the community in 2001 as a regional park site to have amenities ranging from ball fields and a dog park to a community center and amphitheater for the performing arts.
Since the master plan for the site was accepted by the council, how to come up with the money to make that plan a reality has been a question before the town's leaders and the members of its budget and bond committee.
In July, Town Manager Chuck Sweet, along with other members of the town staff, completed a funding proposal for the park, based on estimates of what it would cost the town to include all of the features proposed in the 2001 master plan.
Paying for the park is a two-fold endeavor. The town will need an estimated $55 million to pay all the costs associated with opening its figurative doors and will then need an estimated $4.2 million each year after those doors are open to pay for upkeep, from staffing to equipment repairs and more.
For the $55 million price tag to plan and construct the park site, Assistant Town Manager David Andrews said the town is looking at a bond issue that would be repaid by raising a secondary property tax.
To pay for the ongoing expense of operations and upkeep of the site, Andrews said the town staff is recommending a combination of a primary property tax and fees collected for using the park.
How much will likely be recovered through user fees varies depending on the type of facility. In the proposal it is estimated that a community center could make back up to 75 percent of what it costs to run, whereas outdoor recreation and open space has about a 7 percent return. A performing arts facility makes about 67 percent of its operations and maintenance costs back in similar size communities that have similar facilities.
Community Development Director Brent Sinclair said, however, that all of those numbers depend on what the town chooses to charge the park users.
Neither a primary or a secondary tax have ever been collected by Oro Valley and both would require a public vote to be implemented.
Sweet recommends in the proposal that the combined property tax bill for a homeowner of a house worth $250,000 should range between $10 and $15 per month.
He said he recognizes that while no one in the town will escape the tax if passed, not everyone will be a park user. But, he said, whether they use the park or not, the residents will be making an investment in the community that will make Oro Valley "more liveable."
Andrews stressed that costs associated with the park are estimates and that until hard numbers are nailed down, it is difficult to say definitively how the town should approach financing it. Aside from property taxes several other options for financing the park were explored by the staff, including dedicating an increase in local sales taxes, collecting utility taxes, utility franchise fees or high user fees, starting an endowment and earmarking a portion of the bed tax.
Sweet was tasked last year in his goal setting sessions with the town council to bring forward a strategy for funding the park, which he worked with the town staff to do this year.
Councilman Terry Parish said he appreciates the staff's hard work on the plan, however he thinks the town can come up with better and more creative ways to fund the site than using property taxes and will not support such a tax proposal.
"We need to think beyond the traditional government methods of raising money," he said. "I will not support a property tax of any kind in this town."
He said specifically there is too much emphasis on the secondary property tax in the funding proposal.
He believes the town decision makers are forgetting about future growth of the town and the funds that could come in through sales taxes collected from the new people and businesses.
He also said he does not believe the funding proposal puts enough emphasis on possibilities for corporate sponsorships, which he thinks could pay for a large chunk of the project. He said he has spoken with several businesses that have expressed an interest in some degree of partnership with the town on this project.
"The business community has a vested interest in improving the community," he said. "It's good business for them."
Gifts and corporate sponsorships are included as funding possibilities in the proposal, although the town manager's recommendations propose using the property taxes to pay a majority of the costs associated with the park.
Regardless of whether he agrees with all the funding strategies proposed, Parish said he does agree that the time is past due to build the park.
"It's essential to get it going," he said. He hopes that within a year the town will have started some bricks and mortar work on the site, and within three years he hopes at least some of the recreational areas will be finished. "Something more than just a place to walk your dog, which is what it's being used for now," he said.
While Councilman Kenneth "K.C." Carter said he also would like to see progress made toward constructing a park on the Naranja Town Site sooner than later, he too opposes a property tax to pay for the park, although he has a different idea for how to raise the needed money.
Since town leaders began discussing an increase in the bed tax from 3 percent to 6 percent earlier this year, Carter has lobbied for using the funds generated by the increase for the town site as well as for the parks and recreation department. While many of the town council members are supporting a proposal that would allocate some of the bed tax dollars to the park, to be used for programming, Carter thinks all of the money should be used for that purpose. He said he does not support giving additional funds to regional tourism agencies or the town's economic development department.
"All of the money should stay in the town," he said. "If we do that, we could have the beginning of our beautiful Naranja park."
Carter said with a number of new hotels within town limits on the horizon, as well as the possibility of annexing the Westward Look Resort on Ina Road, he believes the town will generate more money than has been projected to date through the bed tax. He said if the town park project were phased in over time, the town could use the bed tax to finance a large part of it.
"Build the ball fields, build the soccer field first. The people want a park and I think they've got the patience to wait for it," he said.
"I will never support a property tax. Not when we don't need it. We could increase the sales tax before we need to start a property tax," he said.
Councilwoman Conny Culver did not return phone calls seeking comment for this story before the EXPLORER's deadline, but stated that she is opposed to using property taxes to fund the town site when she was campaigning for a seat on the council last year.
"Due to poor planning and unnecessarily generous incentives, we do not have adequate funds to complete the Naranja Park. However, we can phase it in so that the benefit increases as funds become available through improved future planning, impact fees on new development and potential corporate funding … Planning would include a focus on keeping maintenance costs low. I oppose a property tax to pay for its completion," Culver stated in a survey of candidates conducted by the EXPLORER, responding to a question about how the town site should be developed and paid for.
Not all the council members are staunchly opposed to the tax, however.
Vice Mayor Barry Gillaspie said he hasn't made a decision on whether to support the property tax proposals presented in the funding report, however he said "we can't limit ourselves from at least having a debate as a community. We have to have the courage to put the tough questions out there."
Like the other council members interviewed, Gillaspie said he is glad to see the town moving forward with the park plans.
"The park is really important to be a successful community," he said. "It's a huge undertaking, especially for a small town like Oro Valley, " he said.
Gillaspie said he realizes that with the timing of these proposals the park will likely become an election issue, but said that he believes council members are elected to make tough decisions.
"The town manager did what we asked him to do, which was to come up with a list of all the available options," he said. "We need to start with everything on the table."
"We can't wait on this for every little election cycle," he said, adding that with a staggered council election being held every two years it would be next to impossible to get anything done if the council were to wait. "It's time to get moving."
He said property taxes, as well as utility taxes and user fees, can be controversial, but he hopes that the community can have an open discussion about the best way to move forward.
"Hopefully it doesn't become a stratifying issue. We've had enough of that in this community," he said.
Gillaspie said he likes Sweet's proposed timeline for the project, which aims to have a grand opening of the park by 2009. He said he would even like to see some facilities phased in sooner.
"We are so far behind in providing services in parks and recreation, and the arts. We've got to start dealing with this," he said.
He said he agrees with what is proposed in terms of using the programming phase to survey the community about its priorities for building facilities and hopes that the town is able to stick to the master plan that was generated through extensive community participation.
Councilwoman Helen Dankwerth said she too believes it is time to have a conversation with the community about the options for completing the park.
While she said she is not sure about supporting a primary property tax in Oro Valley, she said the cost of planning and constructing the Naranja project is so great that she's not sure how else the town could do it other than to levy the secondary property tax.
"It's a large site with lots of needs. It's going to be a very expensive project. The only way I can see for getting it done is to sell bonds, float a bond issue, and to pay for that we will need a secondary tax," she said. "The people will have to vote on that. It's up to the people to determine if it's important enough to them to pay for it."
"If the people say no, well then it's obviously something we can't afford to do," she said.
Dankwerth said she recognizes that the cost of the project has been projected in very preliminary estimates and she wants to be sure that all the programming is completed and the town knows exactly what it has to ask for and what it will be used for before going to the voters.
"I think it will be very affordable for people," she said of any tax that might be collected for the park.
And because with a property tax the residents would be funding the park's construction, she said she would like to see the residents get some sort of identification that would keep them from having to pay certain user fees that might be implemented in the future to recoup operations and maintenance costs.
The question of to tax or not to tax is one that has surfaced only a few times in Oro Valley since the town was just an idea being discussed in the living room of Jim Kriegh's house, as he and other early residents talked about incorporating.
Kriegh, now the town's historian, said when he and others first started the drive to incorporate the town in the mid 1960s, many of those in opposition said a property tax would have to be levied immediately to pay for the costs associated with a town government. But Kriegh said he looked at other communities, such as Paradise Valley, where no property tax was collected, and knew there was a way to run Oro Valley without one.
At that time people were passionate about having a town free of a property tax, and while Kriegh said he expects many still feel the same way, he also believes there are people who would be willing to pay the extra amount to have services such as those that could be provided at the Naranja site.
Only once since its genesis has the town asked its residents for property tax dollars.
In the mid 1990s, the town went to the voters to ask for a property tax to pay for parks and open spaces and the measure was overwhelmingly defeated. At that time, however, no specific project was on the table for which to use any money generated by the tax.
"There's no way to tell what the feeling would be now," Kriegh said. "You'd have to put it to a vote of the people and see whether they'd be willing to support it."