By Jess Wisloski
Citing an outdated membership fee structure and unnecessary or underprovided services, town leaders are considering pulling the plug on a long-held membership in a regional parks district to save nearly $32,000.
The Winooski Valley Park District, an entity created in 1972 to help build parks and conserve land within its’ member municipalities, has included Williston as one of its partner towns since 1987. The six other members are Burlington, Colchester, Essex, Jericho, South Burlington and Winooski.
Currently, the district (WVPD) manages 18 parks over 1,700 acres of natural areas and conservation lands, 22 miles of trails and more than 12 miles of shoreline on lakes and rivers, according to the WVPD website. Only a portion of one WVPD park, eight acres of Muddy Brook Wetland Reserve, is in Williston.
Yet while the town makes up only four-tenths of a percent of the property the organization keeps up, it’s responsible for 10 percent of the revenues collected in member dues by WVPD: the town paid $30,754 in membership dues last year, and the district has requested $31,972 for this year.
Compare that to Colchester, which has nearly double the number of residents, and 63 percent of the district’s protected acreage (most of it Colchester Pond, but also Delta Park, Wolcott Family Natural Area and the sprawling Macrae Farm Park) and which pays 14.2 percent of the funding for all of Winooski Valley Park District, or $43,543 in FY18.
The largest-population town, Burlington, which makes up 35 percent of the district’s population, owns 27 percent of the protected parkland, and pays 32 percent of the member dues.
williston pays the most
Hashed out another way, Williston is paying more than any other member town per person, at $3.40. The second-highest-paying town is South Burlington, at $3.04 per person, but it has four parks, 104 acres, and one of those parks — Muddy Brook Park (off Poor Farm Road) — has canoeing access to the Winooski River and cross-country ski trails. Winooski, which has no park acreage in its borders, pays the least per person at $2.17.
The reason for the disparity in membership fees collected over the amount of land a town has is due to the origins of the WVPD: it was designed to protect the shoreline and conserve it for public use along the Winooski River. Theoretically, that benefits all the towns located along the river.
The reason Williston’s cut is so high boils down to property values. They are simply higher here than elsewhere, in a per-person calculation, which is why the share seems disproportionate.
“The relationship between how much money is asked for is based on a formula that uses the grand list of the population of each town,” explained Nick Warner, executive director of WVPD, about the dues at the Selectboard meeting on Jan. 3. “Each year, we try to bring in new revenues to soften the impact those have.”
WVPD on the hook
However, with just 9,409 residents in Williston compared with some of the other members (South Burlington has 18,791; Burlington 42,452,) the work of the WVPD just doesn’t seem to add up, said town representatives.
“The dues that we pay don’t reflect the direct services that we get,” said Melinda Scott, Williston’s senior conservation planner, in a presentation at the Selectboard meeting on Jan. 3. “But they are a reflection of the value of the organization regionally and the ecosystem services that the organization provides.”
The town’s Conservation Commission recommended the town maintain its membership in the district this year, but the town is now putting a framework in place with a work plan for the WVPD, which will become a Memorandum of Understanding, in order to detail the roles and responsibilities of the district in Williston. Scott said an MOU will help the town better gauge whether it is gaining value from participation in the district, so it can justify any future spending.
The board stopped short of passing a motion Tuesday to withdraw from the district barring any fee changes in 2018, but will revisit that on Jan. 24, Town Manager Rick McGuire said. A withdrawal from the district would require a town-wide vote by Australian ballot.
Origins of the district
McGuire said he recalled the WVPD’s creation being about securing land along the Winooski river to maintain water quality, and Williston’s involvement as one of support in that effort, but as the park district’s work shifted away from obtaining and conserving land and moved towards management, he told Warner he felt the assumptions should have changed. “My point is that the funding formula should’ve also changed over time, and it hasn’t. So I think Williston’s contribution outstrips the total value. And of course, total value is hard to assess here, but because [the organization is] spending more time managing parks in other communities, the formula should change.”
Warner said the board of WVPD had discussed changing its dues model for a number of months over the past year, but that any other method they tried failed to add up.
“We found that our best strategy now is to try and bring in other sources of funding as steady sources of revenue,” said Warner. According to tax documents, the district expects to increase revenue by $23,950 in FY18 over FY17 — but 63 percent of that is from increased membership fees. The remainder is from increasing the rental income from facility rentals and program offerings.
Williston’s unfair share
When asked why the fee wasn’t incorporating land size, Warner said, “If we tried to apply acreage to the formula, the whole system falls apart.”
Warner said in other locales (ie. states), the kind of work the WVPD does would be afforded by a county budget, something that Vermont doesn’t have in place. “The majority of these park districts are supported with county dollars. It’s kind of a conundrum,” he said.
Jeff Fehrs, the Selectboard’s deputy chair, asked the uncomfortable question: “I know there’s been some discussion around the fees we pay and/or no longer being a member,” he said, asking what the impact would be.
Warner replied, “It would be a huge impact…relative to our budget that would be a pretty big chunk. It would be a pretty big challenge to backfill that.” According to online documents, the FY18 operating budget is $370,350. Williston accounts for 10 percent of the total member dues collected across seven towns, and its dues are 8 percent of the group’s total operational budget.
“The issue of acreage has come up, the issue of what value we’re bringing to the community has come up, and what we felt we’ve heard a lot is, we’re not doing enough to support our own towns,” said Warner.
Yesterday versus today
McGuire pointed out that, as time has rolled on, Williston developed its own environmental reserve fund, which can be used to cover upgrades or repairs on existing parks across the town, not just at Muddy Brook Wetland Reserve.
Scott said the town was currently working with the WVPD to try and find ways to justify the cost. “We’ve been discussing ways in which they could provide assistance to us… which include development of new parks, development of trails,” as well as helping the town to generate public awareness and raise funds, she said, for new park efforts. “It seems like it’s been successful, they’ve helped us out with some of our trail development projects … they’ve helped us with the Allen Brook footbridge project. They’ve also linked us up with Youthbuild,” which provided labor for new boardwalk paths at Mud Pond Conservation Area this summer.
In a letter to the board, sent three days after the meeting, Warner pointed out, “I felt that I did not emphasize enough that WVPD is highly active in acquiring new properties — and that conservation of these lands requires active management,” which he noted, involves writing new laws and obtaining financial commitments.
He also pointed out that the park district only has three full-time employees, as well as three seasonal workers, and is reliant on dozens of volunteer groups to keep the parks free and open to the public. He then outlined work done in Williston in 2016: the bridge and boardwalk reconstructions, and planning for a future parking lot and trail at Brownell Mountain, a former 850-foot ski area now with a portion owned by the town, as well as training the conservation planning intern who helps Williston maintain natural areas.
Warner said the town is in an unusual position compared with other WVPD members. “This town has done a spectacular job in assembling your own environmental assets. You’ll find our board very open to discussion on ways we can change over time,” he said. “I’m not saying we can’t rethink the way it’s assessing its membership fees, but we haven’t succeeded in tipping the apple cart,” he said.
McGuire, saying he didn’t mean to usurp the Conservation Commission’s advisement, told Warner that the next move by Williston might do just that. “I’m saying if Williston were to withdraw it may tip the apple cart,” he said.