Crown Mountain Park under fire for spending to study indoor sports facility in El Jebel
• November 2013: A ballot proposal to raise property taxes to pay off $25 million in bonds to build and equip an indoor recreation center at Crown Mountain Park was defeated in a landslide with 2,298 votes against and 921 in favor, a margin of 79-to-21 percent.
• Spring 2018: Crown Mountain Park and Recreation District’s board of directors decides to ask voters to increase the existing property tax for use at the existing outdoor park. The theme of the campaign is the existing infrastructure will deteriorate and no new improvements will be pursued without the extra revenue. The district’s executive director tells The Aspen Times: “I can tell you this, the tax is not for a recreation center. It is for the basic needs to keep the park operating for the next 20 years.”
• May 2018: Voters approve the tax hike by a vote of 1,178 to 1,106, a margin of 51.5-to-48.5 percent.
• Summer 2019: The Crown Mountain Park and Recreation District’s board of directors majority approves spending to pursue an indoor field house. The spending thus far has included $11,500 on conceptual drawings and $13,500 on a feasibility study.
A midvalley resident active in political and civic issues contends that Crown Mountain Park and Recreation District has violated the public trust by spending tax funds to pursue an indoor sports center after promising in a recent election not to do so.
Bob Schultz of Missouri Heights sent a letter earlier this month to the recreation district’s board of directors asking them to stop spending the funds and honor campaign promises from last year.
“I feel people like me that gave them the benefit of the doubt have been misled,” Schultz said.
Voters in May 2018 narrowly approved a property tax hike for the recreation district by a 51.5% to 48.5% margin. Recreation district officials hinged the campaign on the future of the existing Crown Mountain Park. Without the tax increase, they said, the infrastructure of the outdoor park couldn’t be properly maintained and no improvements could be made.
Crown Mountain executive director Becky Wagner said during the campaign that funds would be used to keep the park operating for the next 20 years.
“I can tell you this, the tax is not for a recreation center,” Wagner said in March 2018.
However, the recreation district board majority has voted this year to spend $13,500 on a feasibility study and $11,500 for conceptual drawings for an indoor facility.
Wagner said the expenditures were justified because a “rare opportunity” surfaced for the district to lease land from the Crawford family in El Jebel for an indoor facility. The facility wouldn’t be at Crown Mountain Park but across Highway 82 in vacant land in El Jebel.
“The district feels it’s important to look further into the possibility,” Wagner said in an email to The Aspen Times. “I think we have and are proving that we are here for the community and we will continue to act in the best interest of the community.”
Voters in the district’s boundaries, which stretch from the Garfield/Eagle county line to Old Snowmass and include parts of Missouri Heights and the Fryingpan Valley, sent a clear message in a 2013 election about the indoor recreation facility. Funding to build and equip a recreation center at Crown Mountain failed in a landslide — 79% to 21%.
That stinging defeat played into the latest election to increase the existing mill levy by 1.95 mills, which generates about an extra $700,000 annually for the district at current property valuation. The May 2018 ballot question said the fund would be used to replace existing infrastructure, operations and maintenance, and building the reserve fund.
In campaign materials, the rec district went even further and defined the percentages of the new revenue that would go into each category. No campaign literature mentioned spending funds on studies or other expenses related to an indoor facility.
“I took them at face value when they said they needed the tax increase for the basic needs of the park,” Schultz said. “They assured us they were just going to spend it on the park. They threw up the white flag and declared a crisis. I fell for it.”
Wagner defended the spending on the feasibility study and conceptual drawings for the indoor facility Wednesday.
“No, we are not violating campaign promises,” she said. “We have a consulting line item within our budget since 2003 that is allocated to projects like these and falls under our original one mill operating tax for the park.”
Almost immediately after the November 2018 election, board members were reviving the indoor facility. Work began on an updated strategic plan in December and was finalized in June. The fourth of the four goals was “Create Year-Round Indoor Facilities.” To achieve that goal, the district aims to “raise money to build the facility through both public and private partnerships.”
Rec district board member Jennifer Riffle, who also is a Basalt councilwoman, opposed the spending on the feasibility study and drawing for the indoor facility. She urged the board to see if their constituents wanted them to pursue studies of an indoor facility.
“I was in the minority,” she said.
Board members Tim Power Smith, Robert Hubble, Kirk Schneider and President Bonnie Scott supported the direction.
Riffle said she doesn’t believe the recreation district has committed any legal violation by spending funds on the indoor facility, based on the ballot language in the May 2018 election.
“Voters voted ‘yes’ to very ambiguous language,” she said.
But given the wording of the campaign materials and comments made by district officials, she believes Schultz raised valid points.
Riffle said she suspects the board may vote at some point on spending tax dollars on construction and operation of the indoor facility. She noted that the district has received an infusion of cash from the property tax hike. The projected 2020 budget has revenue of $2.09 million compared with actual revenue of $1.08 million in 2018.
“The existential question is, what to do with this tremendous surplus of revenues? And, is this what the community wants?” she said.
Riffle urged more members of the public to get involved in Crown Mountain Park issues. Only two of three people regularly attend meetings, she said. The next meeting is 6 p.m. Nov. 13 in the Eagle County office building adjacent to Crown Mountain Park.
Schultz is uncertain what his next step will be. He said he didn’t hear back from anyone from Crown Mountain except Riffle regarding his concerns. He said the district should ask the public if it should spend any funds on the indoor facility before spending anymore.
“If the board does not stop spending on building a recreation facility, then the voters should be asked whether they wish to continue the tax funding that was acquired by deceit,” Schultz wrote.