Milwaukie asks voters to withdraw from North Clackamas Parks
Milwaukie city councilors voted on Aug. 16 to follow Happy Valley in exiting the North Clackamas Parks & Recreation District.
With the council's blessing, Milwaukie voters are being asked this November to support diverting NCPRD's taxes to benefit the city's management of parks.
Like Happy Valley's elected officials, Milwaukie councilors said that their wish to leave stemmed from frustration with the county parks district for slow progress in completing projects.
In response to Milwaukie's vote, county officials said that they were reviewing what Milwaukie's potential withdrawal would mean for the parks district. Milwaukie's 21,000 citizens make up almost exactly one-fifth of NCPRD's total population, more than 105,000 people who live in areas like Oak Grove, Jennings Lodge and urban unincorporated Clackamas.
"We want to assure all district residents that we will continue to operate with their best interest in mind," said Todd Loggan, a county spokesperson.
State legislators passed a bill during the 2020 legislative session to allow Happy Valley to withdraw from NCPRD, which paid back $14.3 million in unused system development charges to the city to become its own parks and recreation provider.
Mayor Mark Gamba voted against the rest of city council's 4-1 decision to refer the withdrawal measure to voters because he believed that the city would be adopting the same inadequate funding source as NCPRD. The district's dedicated permanent tax rate is approximately 54 cents for every $1,000 of assessed property value, which goes toward park maintenance, day-to-day operations and providing recreational programming.
"I have serious concerns that we're starting off with a city whose staff is already overly busy with all of the other things that we're doing, starting off underfunding our parks district," Gamba said.
City Councilor Lisa Batey was among Milwaukie's elected officials who said that voters' potential approval of five years at NCPRD's tax rate would give the city time to determine what tax rate to ask voters to approve in 2027.
"This is a five-year levy, and it allows us to do the groundwork," Batey said. "That is not enough in the long run, but it's the right figure for this year."
Council President Kathy Hyzy said she was not willing to set an "arbitrarily higher rate" that might address some of Gamba's concerns about staffing and underfunded park projects. Hyzy agreed with Batey that Milwaukie needs time under the current service levels to engage citizens in a conversation about their wishes for future park construction and a possibly higher tax rate to pay for these projects.
"Other than knowing we want to build Milwaukie Bay Park, and it's not happening under the current NCPRD leadership, I don't know what Milwaukie residents want, and it's going to take some time to figure that out," Hyzy said.
County Commissioner Paul Savas, who serves as the county's liaison to NCPRD advisory board, doesn't expect anyone on the county board will be opposing Milwaukie's withdrawal from NCPRD. He will be letting the democratic process play out in Milwaukie to see if citizens approve the direction of city councilors.
"If the voters of Milwaukie support this, all we need to do is get a fair, equitable way of their exiting," Savas said. "We're going to get the district back on strong footing, and if Milwaukie's there, great."
Gamba joined the rest of City Council in support of a resolution to rescind Milwaukie's comingling of system development charges with the rest of the parks district.
"Promises were being made in 2018 that were not fulfilled," Gamba said.
The vision to redevelop Milwaukie Bay Park has been in the works since August 2018 when more than 300 residents visited the site to learn about potential amenities and ideas for the sites' improvement, kicking off a public-outreach campaign that lasted about eight months. Project managers took the public's input and updated 2010 master plan for the park to develop new final designs for the park in 2019.
Milwaukie Bay Park received a $750,000 award, a fraction of the more than $8 million needed to complete the project, from the Oregon Parks and Recreation Department's government grant program.
Milwaukie Bay's project has so far been a joint effort between city officials and NCPRD to develop 3.6 acres of Willamette River waterfront. The site is envisioned to include a new children's play area, an interactive water feature, social gathering areas, public art, a safer permanent alignment of the regional Trolley Trail, accessible pathways and new plantings to bolster natural areas.
Meanwhile, Milwaukie received more than $2.25 million to complete the development of three neighborhood parks: Balfour Park, Bowman-Brae Park and Scott Park. The funding will add park amenities and equipment, while creating gathering spaces and increasing art.
This funding comes through Oregon's portion of the American Rescue Plan Act passed in March 2021 that is allotted to the state's senators and representatives. Sen. Kathleen Taylor and Rep. Karin Power, D-Milwaukie, each requested that a portion of their district funds be allocated towards the improvement and development of neighborhood parks.
Milwaukie officials are currently conducting community engagement to create dialogue between community members and city staff about how park projects should be carried out and look like once completed.
Balfour Park, 3103 S.E. Balfour St., is a 0.8-acre undeveloped neighborhood park site located in the Ardenwald-Johnson Creek neighborhood. The city purchased the land in 2008 with funds from Metro's 2006 voter-approved natural areas bond measure. The park property features unique topography and a mature tree canopy, offering the potential for both passive and active recreation.
Bowman-Brae Park is a 0.69-acre undeveloped neighborhood park located at the intersection of Bowman and Brae streets. The city purchased the land in 2011 with assistance from the same Metro bond measure. The park master plan includes an open lawn, small picnic shelter, picnic tables, benches and play area.
Scott Park is located beside the Ledding Library and next to Spring Creek Pond in downtown Milwaukie. The land was bequeathed to the city by Florence Ledding after her passing in 1961. The site is designated as a natural resource area due to the valuable habitat it provides for domestic and migratory waterfowl. City officials said Scott Park, as a key pedestrian destination, serves as an important site for residential, commercial and civic functions.
"After years of engaging with the community about park needs, and fundraising towards this goal of a new neighborhood park in the Ardenwald/Johnson Creek Neighborhood, I can't thank our elected representatives Karin Power and Kathleen Taylor enough," said Lisa Gunion-Rinker, Milwaukie Parks Foundation board member and Balfour Park neighbor. "They recognize the importance of parks in our community, and the importance of green spaces that will contribute to the health and well-being of everyone. I'm thrilled about the significant addition of green infrastructure, and the benefits it'll bring for all creatures great and small."
After the final approval of master plans and contracts are awarded, construction on these three neighborhood parks was expected to begin in 2023.
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