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After collecting millions over the past 15 years, Elmore County recreation district under fire from frustrated taxpayers

More than $4.8 million — that’s how much property tax money the Western Elmore County Recreation District has collected since the taxing district was formed in January 2001, according to Mollie Marsh, one of three district board members.

Yet the community recreational facility that was promised to taxpayers hasn’t materialized. The district has spent more than $1 million on property, an office, staff and community recreation programs, but some are so fed up with the lack of visible progress that a petition drive to dissolve the district has been initiated.

“They need to get that damn building built before they get lynched,” said Mountain Home Mayor Tom Rist, who still supports the effort and meets regularly with district officials. “I’m telling you, it’s getting to be a firestorm. They need to start that damn facility.”

The city, which has about 14,000 residents, operates an outdoor pool about three months a year. Rist said a building to house an exercise center, youth programs and community activities is sorely needed.

District officials hope to break ground on the 23,000-square-foot facility this year and get it open by next year. Marsh said they need to complete an $850,000 capital campaign — which has raised $215,000 so far — to have all the cash in hand needed to build the $5 million facility.

Why didn’t they run a bond election and obtain the money sooner rather than later, and pay off the borrowed money over time?

“The community has said more than once that they want it to be debt-free,” Marsh said. “When you go out for bond, it requires paying back interest on the money that you’ve been loaned. That increases the cost of the facility tremendously.”

The taxing district is collaborating with the YMCA of the Treasure Valley on the project, and its recommendation was to hold off construction until 100 percent of the money for the project was pledged, said Keyra Elmo, who is the YMCA’s Mountain Home Development Coordinator.

The plan is for the district to own the building and the YMCA to run it. The annual operating costs are estimated at $650,000 a year. That will be covered through memberships and taxing district revenue (about $450,000 a year).

The building has been approved by both the Mountain Home Planning & Zoning Commission and City Council, a building official said.

PETITION DRIVE

The district has collected $4,814,821 so far, and some taxpayers have lost their patience.

Wendy Mastroeni, who has four children ages 19 months to 9 years old, is leading the petition drive. She and her husband, both of whom were in the Air Force, got out of the military in 2010 and decided to stay in Mountain Home to raise their family.

Mastroeni said she was part of an effort to renovate the city’s youth center, but the building had too many issues.

“I’ve been trying to work to get another building, so we have a youth center, or someplace kids can go,” she said.

When a group of kids who used to hang out at the youth center got into a terrible car crash in May — and two died — Mastroeni decided she had to do more to help the community’s youth.

“I think that’s what really pushed me over the edge to the point where I said, ‘We need to do something,’ ” she said.

She’s collecting signatures on a petition that would put the dissolution of the taxing district to the voters.

There are 7,285 registered voters in the boundaries of the taxing district, according to Vivian Garcia, elections specialist for Elmore County.

To get the issue on the ballot, Mastroeni must collect 1,457 signatures, or 20 percent of registered voters. To pass, a simple majority of voters must approve it.

If that happens, the Elmore County Commissioners will decide how the collected money will be used. It must be used on recreation.

Mastroeni began collecting the signatures this week and has about 100, but a Facebook page called “Stop the Madness Now” has more than 360 members.

“We plan to go door-to-door and the Saturday farmers market,” she said. “I think it will be pretty easy. Fifteen years is a long time to be taxed and not see anything but a sign.”

She’s referring to the sign that’s on the 20 acres of property that the district acquired for the facility. The district spent $500,000 on the property at 480 South 18th East Street, within walking distance of Mountain Home High School, Mountain Home Junior High and Hacker Middle School.

SHOW ME THE MONEY

When the Western Elmore County Recreation District was created, it collected a household fee of $34.50.

In the late 2000s, Marsh said, the district board switched to a straight levy on all taxable property in the district. Marsh said the levy rate is at its maximum rate of .0006 — cost of the levy is $60 per $100,000 taxable value annually.

Tracy Lauric has been keeping close tabs on the taxing district and its finances since she and her husband, previously in the Air Force, moved to Mountain Home just after the district was created

“I think the community definitely needs something,” she said. “I just don’t think we need $5.1 million of something. You can do a lot with ballfields, soccer fields and outdoor type things ... and a small building.”

The original building was downsized from 33,000 square feet to 23,000 square feet to cut costs, Marsh said. It will have one gymnasium instead of two. It won’t have a pool, but that could be added in a later phase.

Lauric is critical of money that the taxing district has spent on office and staff. The office is at 245 E. 6th South St.

“Why do you have to have staff when you’re not doing anything?” she said.

The district has a part-time treasurer and a part-time secretary, Marsh said.

Taxing districts are required to file annual audits with the state. The report for the fiscal year that ended September 2014 shows total operating expenditures of $127,552, including $9,300 for rent and $15,449 for salaries, wages and payroll.

The largest expenditure listed last year was $54,685, and that was for “contract labor-YMCA.” That money was paid to several YMCA employees who’ve been involved in consulting work for the district.

YMCA employee Keyra Elmo has worked full time for the district the past couple years. Elmo said she’s helping with the capital campaign, working with the district directors and regularly talking with community groups about the project.

Mountain Home City Councilman Geoff Schroeder said he hasn’t always agreed with the district’s actions. He pressed district officials to spend money on recreation programs back in 2010, rather than save every penny for the building.

“I don’t want to see it dissolved. I think we’re on the right track now,” he said.

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