Rec district dealt a setback

A signature gathering process and voter approval will be required before a special recreation district can be established in Monmouth and Independence.

A signature gathering process and voter approval will be required before a special recreation district can be established in Monmouth and Independence.

Polk County Commissioners opted against an outright formation of the district during their final deliberations on the issue June 4.

Instead, proponents will have to conduct a signature drive to place the matter on a ballot, then allow residents to decide.

Commissioner Tom Ritchey said the county deviated from the normal petition/election method for district creation after believing the initiative had widespread support in the communities, from Central School District and First Baptist Church among others.

But sentiment from residents differed sharply during two public forums in Monmouth and Independence in May, Ritchey said.

"My concern is changing the precedent," Ritchey said. "Going away from it creates a mess."

None of the board members favored forming the district themselves, though Commissioner Mike Propes put forth a failed motion to allow residents to vote on its creation without signatures.

"I think the middle ground ... to put it on the ballot gives the people promoting a chance to sell it to the public," said Propes, who took part in the meeting by speaker phone. "I prefer to just get this going."

Proponents will now have to gather signatures from 15 percent of all registered voters in the two cities -- 1,071 -- in order to place a district measure on the ballot, County Clerk Val Unger said.

Proponents want to form a district encompassing Monmouth and Independence that wouldn't levy taxes, but allow it the authority needed to place a general obligation bond to erect a center before voters.

The group seeks to build a 51,000-square-foot complex with a pool, basketball court and other amenities on a parcel off the S-curves along Monmouth Street. Project cost is approximately $9.5 million. Ultimately, the Monmouth-Independence YMCA or a similar organization would run the center.

In light of the May forums, commissioners said there was still confusion among some citizens about whether the formation of the district will automatically create a financial obligation for taxpayers.

Opponent concerns for the funding and operation of a district, financial comparisons to similar recreation building scenario in Sherwood and "a bond proposal that is already $3 million short of projected acquisition and construction needs," were all reasons for pushing a vote initiative process, commissioners said.

"Let's see what the temperature of the water is in the community," Ritchey said.

Joe Penna, a proponent and YMCA board member, said he was disappointed with the decision, "but not surprised.

"Ideally we thought the commissioners would support the concept, but I understand why they would like to go with an initiative process," he said.

Supporters will move forward with a signature drive to place a measure on the November ballot, Penna said. They will also disseminate a newsletter later this month to all residents to outline the focus, purpose and goals of a district.

A survey to gauge voter sentiment regarding the size of a bond they would support is also in the works, Penna said.

John McGonegal, owner of Monmouth Fitness Club, attended last week's meeting and was happy with the outcome, but had hoped the district proposal would die altogether.

He said he opposes the idea of a recreation center because "it's unfair for a tax-supported, nonprofit agency to compete against businesses that have to purchase their own land, property and equipment."

An inherent problem if the district is created and a bond measure submitted is that many potential voters who find the concept appealing would face no tax consequences if they "are renters and not property owners," he said.

But "if people really want this, let's put it to a vote," he also said.


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