Tribune editorial: Not the right time to pass rec proposal

Tribune editorial: Not the right time to pass rec proposal

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The Tribune editorial board agrees with the Bismarck Mandan Chamber EDC’s opposition to the proposed recreational center and sales tax increase. With the uncertainty of the pandemic and resulting economic meltdown, now is not the time to build the center, especially since a number of questions about the project remain unanswered.

The Bismarck Parks and Recreation District wants voters in June to approve a $114.5 million recreation center and a half-cent sales tax increase to help pay for it. The tax would expire when bonds financing up to $108 million for the project are paid off. Private donations are expected to fund some of the project cost.

The Chamber board’s vote, 8-5, reflected some support for the project. The Chamber has more than 1,300 members. “Ultimately, the board felt the timing simply wasn’t right to ask voters whether or not to approve a tax increase given the potential (and as of yet unknown) impacts of the coronavirus outbreak on our community’s economy,” Chamber EDC President Brian Ritter said in a statement.

The Tribune agrees with that statement and has a number of other reasons for opposing the project.

1) A final site hasn’t been selected, though three general areas have been listed. Potential users should know when they vote how convenient the center will be to them.

2) With the economic collapse prompted by the pandemic along with oil prices plummeting, it’s not a good time to take on significant debt. The state’s three economic sectors -- energy, agriculture and tourism -- could be in for a difficult summer and beyond. We need to be realistic and see how the coronavirus plays out over the next few months.

3) What’s the status of a potential joint venture or overlapping services between the Missouri Valley Family YMCA and the park district? We know there have been discussions, but so far no apparent agreements. The YMCA has played a key role in the community, and its needs shouldn’t be ignored.

4) If the economy remains slow, there will be less sales tax revenue than anticipated. The sales tax increase wouldn't begin until September, but no one knows how quickly the economy will become more robust. The sales tax will be difficult for those who can least afford it.

5) Annual revenue from the proposed center is estimated at $2.6 million, but annual expenses are expected to reach $3.1 million. The park board has said the shortfall will come out of its budget, however, it hasn’t said where the extra funding will come from.

6) Fundraising during a weak economy could prove difficult. The board plans to raise 5% to 10% of the project’s cost.

7) One of the arguments for approving the center revolves around the idea that Bismarck is behind other cities in recreational opportunities. We shouldn’t be making decisions based on envy of what other communities offer. The Bismarck Park District does an excellent job of providing recreational services. More are needed, but the present proposal appears to be too much, too quickly.

Finally, the Tribune is concerned by the effort to fast-track the proposal past voters. We understand the desire by private individuals and groups to present ballot measures at the most opportune time, but a publicly elected board should consider the entire community before going to a vote.

With no site selected, the proposal not finalized and the economy uncertain, this isn’t the time to approve the project. 

The Tribune encourages voters to reject the proposal and for supporters to come back at a later date with a finalized proposal and a determined site.

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