By JASON ECK
Community leaders Thursday liked the idea of creating a special district to fund recreation and the arts in Tuolumne County and are eager learn more about the idea.
A group of about 20 people, including representatives of government agencies, schools, recreation and the arts, gathered to learn what it would take to form a district. Sonora City Councilwoman Liz Bass brought the group together to find out if there is support for the idea.
Recreation and the arts are two areas that go before the Tuolumne County Board of Supervisors every year to get a share of limited county funding to maintain services.
By creating a special district, Bass argues, both would have permanent funding on which to depend.
Debby Walker, director of planning and facilities for the Mission Oaks Recreation and Park District in Carmichael, has spent 14 years as a recreation manager. She told the group Thursday that once a community has generated strong support for creating a special district, it is important to hire a research consultant to find out how much residents would be willing to pay to support the district.
"That's the key right there," she said.
Walker explained that forming a special district creates a government agency in which services are tailored to what residents want. She said it allows residents to a link a cost with a benefit.
Most special districts are supported by property taxes. When a district is formed, government agencies can contribute a portion of existing property tax revenue to the district, or seek new taxes. The latter requires two-thirds voter approval. The first option requires only a simple majority vote.
Other funding sources include fees for services, donations and grants.
Once boundaries are determined, voters would have to approve the formation of the district.
The Local Agency Formation Commission, LAFCO, in each county is charged with creating and dissolving special districts.
Recreation in Tuolumne County is offered through the Tuolumne County Recreation Department, Tuolumne Parks and Recreation District and Twain Harte Community Services District. Outlying districts could decide to join the district or remain as a separate entity, said Brent Wallace, Tuolumne County administrative officer.
Mike Russell, director of the Tuolumne County Recreation Department, said he is frustrated with his limited budget.
"We have a staff that is truly committed to the service they provide," yet a lack of dollars holds the staff back, he said. The department runs on a $1 million annual budget.
Russell said it's tough to ask for money each year when he knows he's competing against agencies that include the fire department.