Proposed tax for Port Townsend pool is questioned

County commissioners push back on funding

PORT TOWNSEND — The Board of Jefferson County Commissioners declined to support the recommendations for a new pool facility in Port Townsend, urging the steering committee to reconsider the proposed funding mechanism.

At their Monday meeting, commissioners asked the project’s steering committee to draft recommendations that would fund the project with a more localized tax, rather than a countywide sales tax.

The steering committee for the new pool project — known as the Healthier Together Initiative — issued recommendations for the construction of a new $37 million aquatics facility located at the Mountain View Commons site in Port Townsend, where the city’s current pool is located.

The recommendations also included a commitment to raise $17 million through state, federal and private grants while continuing the City of Port Townsend’s $400,000 annual subsidy paid to the current pool and raising $20 million in bonds.

The Port Townsend City Council approved the steering committee’s recommendations last week.

But the committee also suggested the creation of a Public Facilities District (PFD) — a countywide taxing district that would then enact a two-tenths of 1 percent sales tax to help pay for the facility.

County commissioners said they supported the creation of a new pool, but Commissioners Greg Brotherton and Heidi Eisenhour expressed concern about the recommendations.

Brotherton — who represents District 3, covering south and west Jefferson County — said he supported a pool but did not support a countywide taxing district to pay for it.

Brotherton said he’d heard from several people in his district supporting the pool, but, “I’ve heard from 10 times that many that it isn’t equitable that everyone gets taxed the same for an amenity in Port Townsend, and I have to say I agree with them.”

Brotherton said he might be able to support the countywide tax if the pool facility were more centrally located, but with the pool being located in Port Townsend, he said the tax doesn’t seem appropriate.

“I want to find a way to get to a pool, but I’m not in favor of a PFD as the funding mechanism,” Brotherton said.

Eisenhour, who represents District 2, said she had concerns about the efforts to raise $17 million in grants and donations and noted that if the tax were to pass, the county would be contributing more to the pool than it did to homelessness and affordable housing or mental health.

“This is moving too fast, in my opinion,” Eisenhour said. “I haven’t had an opportunity to hear from everybody.”

Eisenhour said there may be other locations in the county — Chimacum’s HJ Carroll Park, for example — where the pool could be located.

“I need to dig into the weeds a little bit,” Eisenhour said. “It’s not something I’m ready to vote on today.”

The steering committee had also considered the creation of a municipal parks district (MPD), which would have its borders drawn around a primary service area. Once an MPD is created, a $0.20 per $1,000 property tax levy would be enacted for the next 20 years.

Both kinds of taxes would have to be approved by voters, but an MPD would require two votes to pass; one to create the district and another to enact the tax. With a PFD, county commissioners could vote to create the district and assign its board, and then the district would put the tax on the ballot in a special election.

But once an MPD is created, voters would have to approve the new property tax by a supermajority vote, whereas a sales tax under a PFD would require only a simple majority.

District 1 Commissioner Kate Dean — who sits on the steering committee — said she felt the municipal parks district is a better mechanism for funding the project but that it is less feasible.

“More folks paying in a smaller amount is the reason why this makes sense,” Dean said. “This is a regional facility; many facilities that we all pay into that are not in our hamlet.”

Dean said she is concerned the lack of family amenities in the community is causing families to leave the region and that failing to invest in additional family-friendly infrastructure would continue that trend.

Several people gave public testimony at the meeting, most of them in favor of the project, but several expressed concerns about the cost and how many county residents would actually use the pool.

“I’ll always go to bat for kids, but it should be a regional item, not in Port Townsend,” said Marcia Kelbon, a Quilcene Fire/Rescue District commissioner. “Slow it down.”

The Healthier Together Initiative is a joint effort between Jefferson County, the City of Port Townsend, Jefferson Hospital District, Port Townsend School District, Olympic Peninsula YMCA, Jefferson Aquatic Coalition and the Port of Port Townsend.

The YMCA, which runs the current pool and would administer the new facility, and the Jefferson Aquatic Coalition have agreed to lead the fundraising efforts, and the steering committee hopes to pass a tax before those organizations begin seeking grants.

Those organizations can begin applying for grants in June, said Carrie Hite, Port Townsend’s director of parks and recreation strategy, but they would not be competitive without the public show of support provided by the approval of a tax for the project.

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Reporter Peter Segall can be reached at peter.segall@peninsuladailynews.com.

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