Astoria could close the Aquatic Center and eliminate all youth and adult athletic programs by the end of August unless the City Council approves new fees and tax increases to finance park operations and maintenance.
City staff is recommending a $3 parks and recreation fee on water customers and an increase in the lodging tax from 9 percent to 11 percent to generate $563,540 a year for parks. The Parks and Recreation Department says it requires a minimum of $425,004 to implement “the life raft scenario.” As the term implies, the life raft is an emergency solution, a way to stay afloat for now on a turbulent budgetary ocean.
The City Council will hear the staff recommendation at a meeting tonight.
“Coming to that conclusion was one of the most challenging parts of this process,” Angela Cosby, the director of the Parks and Recreation Department, said of potentially closing the Aquatic Center and eliminating sports programs.
The Aquatic Center, financed by a voter-approved bond and fundraising in 1996, was part of the redevelopment of the city’s eastern gateway. The pools are popular with recreational swimmers from across the region and are used by swim teams for training, but maintenance costs are significant. Youth and adult athletic programs place demands on city staff time and resources.
City staff cautioned that closing the Aquatic Center and eliminating the sports programs should not be viewed as a temporary fix, but a decision that would have long-term effects financially if the city ever tried to revive the services in the future.
“Ideally, council will approve a funding-mechanism scenario that will provide the needed resources to continue sustaining all service levels,” Cosby said.
Fee and tax options
City councilors have discussed a $3 fee per unit attached to water bills, which would bring in $153,540, and a lodging tax of 11 percent, which would bring in an estimated $410,000. The bulk of the new hotel tax money — $287,000 — would go to the Promote Astoria fund, which is intended for tourism promotion and has restrictions.
City Attorney Blair Henningsgaard, however, said the Promote Astoria fund can be put toward maintaining or improving “tourist-related facilities.”
“Our parks, pools and Riverwalk are tourist-related facilities,” he wrote in a June memo. “This means that 100 percent of all expenses for maintenance and improvement for these facilities can be paid with ‘new’ tax dollars.”
He also believes maintenance expenses could include a portion of city staff salaries for work that is closely linked to tourist-related facilities.
Over the past 40 years, the Parks and Recreation Department has grown, building 42 new parks while maintaining the Aquatic Center and other facilities and a long roster of activities and programs. Staff levels have not kept pace. Instead, the number of full-time employees has dropped by 50 percent.
The parks department has been able to generate an additional $450,000 annually for the past 10 years by adding programs, marketing and building partnerships, according to a city staff memo prepared for the City Council.
“Because of these efforts, the deficit gap between available tax funds and funding needed to maintain our facilities has narrowed greatly,” the staff memo said.
But costs continue to rise along with the need for more dedicated maintenance on the city’s 310 acres of park land. This budget cycle, the parks department had a $100,000 hole that was filled by pulling funding from elsewhere in the budget.
Astoria has faced public criticism over the conditions at several parks. Families with loved ones buried at the city-owned Ocean View Cemetery in Warrenton have been particularly disappointed by the maintenance of the cemetery. Last week, Warrenton City Commissioner Mark Baldwin called the cemetery’s upkeep “shameful.”
For six months, the City Council has discussed a variety of scenarios and solutions with staff, but made no decisions.
To cut costs, the city looked at reducing programs and services and selling park lands. New revenue options, meanwhile, have come down to the two main proposals: the parks and recreation fee on city water bills and an increase to the lodging tax.
Cosby has told city councilors several times that she worries about losing key staff the longer the department’s funding issues drag on.
Pros and cons
The two options on the table Monday night both come with pros and cons.
First, they both take time.
City staff estimates that the fee and the tax increase would not take effect until January. Since the additional revenue would not be collected for the first half of the fiscal year that began this month, the city anticipates needing an end-of-year transfer of up to $200,000 to $300,000 to balance the parks department’s budget.
Both will also take a lot of work.
City councilors indicated they would prefer a per unit charge versus a per water meter charge for the $3 fee. Several residents had pointed out that this would make the fee more equitable since some multifamily units share a single water meter.
The city does not have a breakdown of how many units are attached to each meter. Staff will need to analyze the city’s information, cross-reference it with information available from the county assessor and fill in remaining gaps.
City staff estimates this work could cost up to $20,000. However, collecting the data could also give the city a better grasp on just how many multifamily units are in Astoria, information that is useful in analyzing and addressing housing concerns.