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Blue Springs looks ahead with parks plans

By Mike Genet mike.genet@examiner.net

Blue Springs city leaders have decided to first ask voters to renew the sales tax dedicated to parks before another try at the use tax to boost street maintenance.

The City Council voted Tuesday to ask voters on the April 6 ballot to renew the half-cent sales parks sales tax, with no sunset. In addition to park maintenance, funds would be for one and eventually two new parks on the city’s south edge, as well as a new aquatic center adjacent to the Fieldhouse.

Voters initially approved the tax for five years starting in 2017, giving the city about $15 million overall to tackle several improvements and at times long-neglected maintenance issues at various parks. The Parks Commission had recommended a 20-year sunset for the tax renewal, which would start in 2020, but a council majority voted to ask for permanent renewal – hoping that will make two new parks and an aquatic center more financially feasible. 

The council unofficially decided last September to put the use tax – applying city sales taxes to internet sales – on the April ballot, with the promise to dedicate funds to street maintenance. But since then, many city leaders decided to wait on that and go for the parks tax renewal first. That tax has generated more than $3 million annually, and staff estimates that can rise to $4 million over time.

For one, Mayor Carson Ross said, the city doesn’t want to ask voters on both taxes at the same time. In case the parks tax renewal doesn’t pass, the city would have to wait a year to ask again, and officials want to preserve the time for that before the current parks tax expires in September 2022.

“When we put the first sales tax and we said what we were going to do, it has been promises made and promises kept,” Ross said. “We want to concentrate on one at a time.

“The use tax is a little different … explaining it to people. It will be easier explaining parks. I’m confident the voters will see the value in it.”

“Residents are using our parks like never before because of the pandemic,” Parks Director Dennis Dovel  told that council, adding that they’re also using some neighboring cities’ parks because of proximity or some amenities not being available in Blue Springs.

Another time-limited tax such as 10 years wouldn’t provide enough funds to build out a new park or new aquatic center, and building a new aquatic center next to the Fieldhouse will lessen ongoing administrative costs, Dovel said.

A couple years ago the city transferred ownership of Centennial Pool-Plex, adjacent to the Blue Springs High School campus, to the school district. The district says it will close the outdoor pool portion rather than do a costly renovation. The school district also bought the former YMCA building adjacent to the Blue Springs South high school campus. 

The district offers some public hours at both indoor pools, but the outdoor Centennial closing will leave the city without an outdoor pool. While a potential new aquatic center wouldn’t have a lap-lane section as the largest feature, it still would provide some outdoor area for children to learn how to swim. Theoretically, Dovel said, that doesn’t heighten the risk of children drowning because they never learned how to swim.

“I think it’s an important amenity; this is what people want,” Council Member Susan Culpepper said.

“It’s a quality-of-life thing, the fact we have people leaving town and using other facilities,” Council Member Galen Ericson said. “The only reason to have a sunset is some people won’t vote for it because there’s no sunset. I think time’s a-wasting, and we need to get it done.”

The first new park would be Southwest Park, on 50 acres near the Wyatt Road dead-end east of Missouri 7, abutting Bridger Urban Conservation Area. Consultants have suggested trails and an events barn that could generate revenue.

The second, later new park would be Roscoe Righter Park, on 75 acres next to Mason Elementary off Colbern Road, between Missouri 7 and Shrout Road. 

Fully built out over decades with all proposed amenities, Southwest Park would cost about $29.7 million, Roscoe Righter Park about $73 million and a new aquatic center about $22.4 million, consultants estimated.

Council Member Chris Lievsay said he hoped the renewed tax funds wouldn’t be short-changed toward improvements and ongoing maintenance at existing parks.

“We promised that tax five years ago by providing maintenance; I would be more comfortable with no sunset and initial focus is existing maintenance,” he said.

Added Council Member Jerry Kaylor, “I don’t want anything being neglected, and we’re coming in with a bling here.”

Council Member Ron Fowler said the Parks Department has earned the right to ask for tax renewal – “with great execution,” as he put it – but fears that taking out the sunset will lessen the chance voters would later approve the use tax for streets. He considers streets a higher priority at the moment, as the city has been constantly playing catch-up with maintenance.

“Honestly parks is looking pretty good right now, and roads are not,” he said. “If we have the highest taxes outside Kansas City, and we haven’t taken care of the roads, that’s an embarrassment.”

“I think this will pass,” Fowler said of the parks tax renewal, “but there will be consequences for kicking the can down the road on streets.”