A Special Taxing District for Bay Oaks?

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At last Thursday’s Bay Oaks Recreation Campus Advisory Board (BORCAB) meeting, member Dave Anderson proposed an idea that came as a bit of a bombshell: Save the Town’s beleaguered parks and recreation department by creating an independent taxing district for the purpose of running and funding Bay Oaks and the Beach Pool.

“This is all about making Bay Oaks self-sufficient and stable,” Anderson said. “It also removes all politics from the equation in that Bay Oaks would no longer be a political football accompanied by rumors of the Town closing it down filling the air during every Council election.”

The Town of Fort Myers Beach assumed ownership of Bay Oaks and the Beach Pool from Lee County in 2009, but its history on the island goes back much further – to October 23, 1986 when the facility first opened its doors on land once owned by Dr. W.B. Winkler. When Doctor Winkler died, he left the land to his nurse, Martha Redd (famous for donating the land for the Matanzas Pass Preserve), who left it to her nieces and nephews. They sold the property to Lee County for $175,000 – thanks to the efforts of Beach residents, who held countless bake sales, chicken dinners and other fundraisers to ensure that island kids had a recreation center.

The transition to ‘island rule’ of Bay Oaks was big news seven years ago, as county and town officials, residents and visitors welcomed the campus, saying a rec center is part of the Town’s Comprehensive Plan. Since then, it has drawn fire from some residents who say it costs the Town too much money – anywhere from 8% to 13% of the budget every year. Proponents say that park and recreation departments are a service that taxpayers fund through their taxes and are not supposed to be a revenue source.

Anderson says his plan would make both sides happy.

“In most cities, it is understood that parks and rec departments lose money, but those cities have the tax base to withstand that loss,” he told us. “Fort Myers Beach does not. The Town is obligated by state statute to fund infrastructure projects, which we are in dire need of and which the town has embarked on some costly ones, such as the stormwater utility and the waterline replacement project. They are not obligated to pay for parks and rec, and they currently have put nothing aside for maintenance or for emergency replacement of items like pool pumps, which do eventually wear out. This is all aside from the fact that we just found out that the Town does not own a large section of the campus that it’s been using.”

Anderson’s proposal would be to create a special taxing district to which the Town would lease or somehow turn over management responsibilities of Bay Oaks and the pool to a publicly elected board that would set a tax rate and oversee operations – much like the Beach Library and the Fort Myers Beach Fire Control District.

“I’d also like to expand the limits of the new district beyond the incorporated limits of the Town of Fort Myers Beach – perhaps to include the entire 33931 zip code or up to Pine Ridge Road like the Library and the Fire District,” Dave said. “This would expand the tax base and reduce the amount that residents currently pay for Bay Oaks. It would also increase usage, as we’d have to really market to the people in the district who live off-island.”

It is that marketing that Dave sees as most important to getting traction for his proposal.

“This is going to take a large sales pitch off the island to get support,” he said. “We’re going to need more programs to generate usage. We need to find a package that will appeal to everyone in the 33931 zip code. As far as Town residents, the appeal is that their taxes should go down, as the amount levied for Bay Oaks is eliminated and islanders will pay less for the special district as it encompasses a much larger area. The Town itself would benefit because the deficit for Bay Oaks would be taken off the budget.”

The 33931 zip code extends beyond the edges of the special district boundaries for Beach Library and the Fire District – all the way to Summerlin Road, the western edge of Wa-Ke Hatchee Community Park and Lexington Middle School, the eastern side of Bunche Beach and all of Lover’s Key State Park.

Anderson says he has looked into this, and found at least two other municipalities in Florida who have created special taxing districts for their parks and recreation departments.

“There are three ways to do this  – at the town level, at the county level, and at the state level,” he said. “I propose we do this at the state level, so that all the reporting is made to the state. This would protect Bay Oaks from becoming a political football. The governing board would be elected, and my intent is that the revenue will eventually increase to a point where the special district’s taxes would be reduced to a minimal amount. Bay Oaks needs to be self-supporting and staffed properly. Right now they are understaffed because people think they have too many people on staff when in reality they don’t.”

Dave told us that the reaction of his fellow BORCAB members to his proposal was ‘mixed but positive’.

“Chair Betty Simpson said she is ‘positive but remains neutral’ to the idea, and Denise Monahan and Rae Sprole wanted to make sure the senior programs would remain intact and be improved,” Anderson said.  “At the end of the meeting, Administrative Services Director Maureen Rischitelli said she’d return to us with examples of other communities who have gone this route – something I plan to provide for her before our next meeting on June 2nd.”

Council member Tracey Gore is BORCAB’s liaison to council. When asked her opinion of Anderson’s proposal, she said that she needs to see more information.

“I am not a big fan of raising taxes, and so far this looks to me like another fee,” she said. “I’m also not even sure it can be done since the Town owns Bay Oaks and Dave’s proposing the new district extend beyond Town limits. I plan to do my own research on this and look forward to seeing more about it.”

Just before press time, Anderson sent us the following list of thirteen communities in the state of Florida that have ‘recreation-related independent taxing districts’: Barefoot Bay Recreation District; Bayshore Gardens Park & Rec District; Cypress Club Special Recreation District Carrollwood Recreation District; Daytona Beach Racing and Recreation Facilities District; Hendry-Labelle Recreation District; Holiday Park and Rec District; Greater Boca Raton Beach and Park District; Port Malabar Holiday Park; Mobile Home Park Recreation District; Trailer Estates Park and Rec District and the Tri-Par Estates Park and Rec District.

 

Keri Hendry Weeg