The Kettle Falls pool sits dry again for the third year and that, depending on who is consulted, is the fault of the Stevens County Commissioners, the Stevens County Auditor or the Kettle Falls community.
An effort from citizens of the Kettle Falls area to find a way to fund the $50,000 it costs each year to keep the pool open turned into a fight between the community and the county commissioners as an idea to solve the issue was prepping to go to voters in 2015. With the City of Kettle Falls unable to fund yearly pool operations, community members had tried to pay for the pool through fundraisers like “Float the Pool” that collected donations to keep the pool open. However, a long-term solution was needed, so an effort started to form a parks and recreation district that would collect a property tax to keep the pool open. In the summer of 2014, organizers circulated a petition to gain support for the idea and the efforts culminated with nearly 500 signatures to the county commissioners for review. The petition asked the county commissioners to approve putting a measure on the ballot that would create a parks and recreation district with a tax base that included the City of Kettle Falls, four surrounding taxing districts and part of a district in Ferry County. The proposed tax rate was 19 cents per $1,000 assessed property value.
The Stevens County Commissioners accepted the petition to form the district but decided that the proposed taxing district was too large for those who would actually “benefit from the pool.” The commissioners also took issue with the fact that the signed petitions didn’t specify a dollar amount for the property tax. So they asked the community to go gather signatures again.
“We tried to work with folks when they came in and tried our best to follow the law,” said Stevens County Commissioner Wes McCart. “They thought they were doing the process correctly, but the taxing amount wasn’t specified.”
Frustrated with the commissioners’ response, those who worked on getting signatures for the ballot declined to go out and again collect signatures, asking the commissioners to simply put the measure on the ballot so people could vote.
However, because the commissioners decided that the taxing district was too large they decided to shrink the district to just include the City of Kettle Falls. They also named the district the Upper Columbia Pool District. Commissioner McCart said this unilateral decision was within the commissioners’ power per state law.
“It is our job to see if the people being included in the taxing district could benefit and we decided those living outside of Kettle Falls would not,” said McCart who said the commissioners also received negative feedback about the potential tax. “We tried to make the best decision with the information that was given.”
Despite public protest at hearings, the commissioners held on to their changes to the proposed Upper Columbia Pool District and proceeded with the changes.
Then things got confusing.
When the commissioner-amended proposal hit the auditor’s office, it was the understanding of the community and the commissioners that there would be one measure on the ballot to create a pool district and to fund it. In reality, two separate measures appeared on the ballot; one creating the district and an other funding it at the rate of 21.5 cents per $1,000 assessed property value. The measure to create the district passed by 50 percent, but the measure to fund the district failed by only garnering 52 percent approval instead of the needed 60.
However, a miscount at the Stevens County Auditor’s Office initially suggested both the creation of the district and the funding measure had passed. During this time, since no one had filed for the five pool commissioner seats that would govern the new parks and recreation district, write-in candidates were accepted and the offices were filled by a lot drawing.
When it was determined that the funding measure had not passed, the newly elected pool commissioners were sent a letter notifying them that the district had no funding. This meant that Stevens County now had another parks and recreation district that was formed, but unfunded (the Lake Spokane Parks and Recreation district near Suncrest is in a similar state.)
But that’s not the end of the story.
Since most community supporters had been aiming for a one-measure proposal that would create a district and fund it, the letter saying the district did not have funding made the five elected commissioners believe that the district had not been formed. No pool district commissioner meetings have been held to date and at least two pool commissioners said it was their understanding that no parks and recreation district had been formed.
Pool Commissioner John Ridlington said the district commissioners have not met and the community does not have the desire to run an unfunded district.
“I think there has to be a way to do this, but not with the current players,” said Ridlington. “We need new blood, new ideas.”
Commissioner McCart argues that aside from the changes and mistakes, the Upper Columbia Pool District can move forward.
“There was lots of discussion on this issue and there are some who felt that the commissioners should blindly rubber stamp what the committee brought to them,” said McCart. “But we were doing our best to work with people and follow the law. We were not trying to circumvent the will of the people.
“Whether you agree or disagree with the changed taxing area for the pool district, there are five elected commissioners on a parks and recreation district and a mechanism to move forward,” he said.
By Jamie Henneman/The Independent Staff