Truckee voters will be asked Nov. 6 whether they want to tax themselves to finance the construction of a new swim complex and performing arts center.

Measure J, the proposal to float an $8.5 million bond to help finance the projects, is expected to cost homeowners just under $7 per $100,000 of assessed valuation, according to projections.

“Just what kind of town do we want Truckee to be? Do we give up the chance to build two great facilities merely because it will create a new property assessment that amounts to $21 per year for the average property owner?” said Bob French, a former chair of the performing arts commission. “Or do we acknowledge that, for most people, that is an acceptable cost to pay to be able to live in a town that will then have all of the wonderful performing arts and aquatics opportunities that these amenities will provide? As one property owner, it seems to me to be a very worthwhile investment to make to so significantly improve the quality of the town that I live in.”

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With $7 million in matching funds from the Truckee Donner Recreation and Park District, the bond proceeds would pay for a state-of-the-art, 282-seat performing arts center as well as an aquatic center with an eight-lane, 25-yard heated lap pool and a recreation pool with its own “lazy river,” a play feature for children and non-weight bearing water exercise for older residents.

Both are slated for the current site off Highway 89, although the district is discussing the possibility of building the performing arts center downtown, possibly on the site of the old railyard.

Proponents say the new facilities will host theatrical performances, stage rentals, regional swim meets, and more, boosting the local economy and encouraging new spending at local restaurants and hotels, especially in the off-seasons when business is tight.

Many local dance and theater groups have folded over the years due to the lack of a place to practice and perform, and the stages that do exist (at Truckee High School and the old Park and Recreation Center) are too booked or too small to service the region’s growing audience, they say. Proponents note that the current high school pool, at more than 40 years old, is antiquated.

Critics say Truckee doesn’t need another pool and that taxpayers should not be further tapped to pay for a park and recreation district that does not pay for itself with user fees.

“Just because it’s so, doesn’t make it right,” said Lynne Larson, a Truckee resident heading the “No on J” campaign. “I want something we can be proud of, not something we can settle for up there at the new rec center.”

In the campaign statement voters will receive, Larson said the timing of the bond measure was poor given the current state of the economy, and went on to accuse the district of financial mismanagement.

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“Measure J does not pass the common sense test,” Larson wrote. “The Performing Arts Center is estimated to lose over $100,000 a year. The proposed Aquatic Center is estimated to lose $180,700 a year. There are no less than 11 swimming pools already within the district boundaries.”

However, Larson’s rebuttal, in the same document, retracts her claims of poor management. She won’t discuss the retraction, citing legal issues.

From Tahoe Donner to Glenshire to Lahontan, there are many pools within the district, but the only public one is the Truckee High School pool.

A close review of its most current audited financial statements shows the district is on solid ground, despite deficit spending.

In the fiscal year ending last September, the district reported an operating deficit of approximately $472,000. Half of that amount is slated to be refunded from the district’s capital projects fund because it was spent on planning the two proposed centers, according to Steve Randall, who manages the district.

But with a cash reserve of some $4 million in its general operating fund, Truckee’s park and recreation district has been better positioned than many of California’s special districts to keep its head above water in the face of dwindling property tax receipts.

The rec and park district spans two counties with about 16,000 parcels in Nevada County and 1,900 across the county line in tony Placer County addresses like Martis Camp and Lahontan. The district is funded primarily by local property taxes, which accounted for $4.2 million of last year’s $6.5 million operating budget. User fees amounted to $2.2 million, according to the 2011 audited financials.

Public dollars for public facilities

This is typical statewide. Park and recreation services are publicly supported because facilities such as community pools, skate parks, and public ball fields don’t usually turn a profit. And the question of whether they merit public support in the form of voluntary tax dollars is as much a philosophical as an economic one.

“This is an investment in community,” said Randall. “Why did we all come here, and why do we stay here? Quality of life.”
Having managed the district for the past 27 years, Randall has successfully steered the town’s park and recreation department through some radical changes. More than 10 years ago, the district borrowed against the old community center on Church Street to build the fields at Riverview Park.

“Where would we be today if that hadn’t gotten built?” he asks. That state loan is current and will be fully paid off in 2021, Randall said.

In 2007 the district leveraged many of its key assets, including West End Beach and the Regional Park, to borrow $24.2 million to construct the new community center, an impressive building with an indoor track, spaces for public art, meeting rooms, and free Wi-Fi. The land on which it sits, 13.2 acres near the intersection of Donner Pass Road and Highway 89, was donated by East West Partners in exchange for development rights.

At $18 million, the building came in under budget, and the surplus was banked in the district’s capital projects fund, hence the extra $7 million available for the proposed new projects.

“This building creates community,” Randall said, noting that 3,500 people attended the grand opening. “To me, that showed the community really wanted this building and they were excited about it.”

The district was literally “busting at the seams” in the old building, and the new site has allowed for additional programming like indoor soccer, a climbing wall, and an indoor running track and fitness center with various specialized classes.

Randall says he takes his marching orders from the community and its elected board of directors. “Fifteen years ago, the board made a conscious decision that we wanted to be about more than just team sports,” he said.

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The results are obvious — an outdoor amphitheater for summer concerts, a bicycle pump track built on an acre with largely donated funds, a $3.6 million golf course that was donated to the district, several multi-purpose sports fields for softball, football, and soccer, the 32-acre Riverview Park, an ice rink, 35 piers at Donner Lake maintained for free public use, a two-lane boat launch, and a dock for wheelchair access to fishing and swimming in Donner Lake, among other things.

Twice in the past decade, in 2004 and again in 2010, Truckee was named the best “Recreation & Parks Department” in the State of California by the statewide association of park and recreation districts.

But there’s a price for everything. For all the great facilities locals and visitors enjoy, the district is paying almost $1.7 million a year in debt service. If voters approve Measure J, the annual debt will increase to a projected $2.1 million next year (and possibly higher in subsequent years), with the new bond being financed through voter-approved taxation.

What will the housing market do?

Despite the fact that property tax revenues to the district have fallen by more than $600,000 in recent years, Randall says he feels confident the district can meet its existing obligations and continue to remain solvent after the new facilities are complete. The projections for the bonds were “ultra-conservative,” he said.

Measure J’s tax estimates are based on the theory that property values will decline by 2 percent this year, remain flat in 2013-14, increase by 2 percent the following year, and increase by 3 percent per year for the remaining life of the bond.
Given Prop. 13, California’s 1979 tax limiting initiative, assessed value for the sake of tax collections is only allowed to increase by 2 percent per year, and Randall notes the district is only projecting 1 percent above that. Reports from the county indicate that assessed value is not down, but actually up 1 percent this year, he said.

“If we have higher growth, that means the assessment we’re asking for will go down,” he said. “The district looked at their resources, and we have the ability to meet that debt.” He likens the investment to a homeowner who suffers through lean years for an asset that pays dividends down the road.

With the economy at an all-time low, construction costs are expected to be competitive and labor plentiful. But the economy is a two-sided coin, and some cite the recession as a reason to delay.

“While we are all hurting from the national economic downturn, promises of wonderful economic benefits are just not likely or deliverable,” Truckee resident Patty Lomanto wrote to Moonshine. “Hired consultants tend to satisfy the customer, and all too often projects result in either unmet expectations or significantly adverse consequences of spending too much of the public’s money.”

Some second homeowners who don’t get to vote on the measures because they are registered in their county of primary residence say the added taxes are an unfair hit.

“Tahoe Donner members pay for 50 percent of the tax base in Truckee, but do not benefit from much of the taxes as they are both a duplication of what we have,” said Suzy Knisley. A second homeowner, she serves on the governing board for Tahoe Donner, where owners pay at least $1,375 a year to support private amenities. Guests of homeowners are allowed to use the heated three-lane lap pool and recreation center for $7.75 a day, but those facilities are not open to the general public.

“But importantly, 80 percent of the members primarily live someplace else and only use Tahoe Donner as a vacation home,” Knisley said. “That means 80 percent of our about 20,000 members will probably not benefit significantly from a performance art center, but are being asked to pay for it.”

Proponents say facilities that make Truckee an attractive place to visit and live represent value added to every property owner, even if they only vacation here.

“I work two jobs in order to pay my bills, but I think this is a good thing for the community, and people need to remember why we have local taxes,” said Kris York, a district board member and a single mom. “This isn’t about investing in discreet facilities; this is about investing in the community.”

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Author

  • Jackie Ginley

    Jackie Ginley is a former journalist and Moonshine editor who shelved the pen in 2013 to pursue a career in real estate. With deep roots in Tahoe, she enjoys hiking, skiing, and après-everything with friends. Jackie lives in Truckee, and is currently building a home in Tahoe Donner.

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