Efforts to form a Cleveland Parks and Recreation District suffered a major setback today (Wednesday).
For more than a year, community leaders have been spearheading efforts to form the first ever Parks & Rec District in Johnston County to levy an annual tax on the 27,000 residents in Cleveland to pay for recreational services. The district would follow the same boundaries as the McLemore (Cleveland) fire district.
In February, Johnston County Commissioners unanimously approved a Resolution supporting the bill, which has the support of 88 percent of all Cleveland residents who completed an online survey in January.
Led by Representatives Larry Strickland of Pine Level and Donna White of Clayton, the NC House overwhelmingly approved House Bill 929 on June 13th approving the Parks & Rec District pending a referendum vote by Cleveland residents this November.
Today, the leadership in the NC Senate made the decision not to hear the bill in 2018.
Senator Brent Jackson (R-Sampson), whose district includes a large portion of Johnston County and is among the Senate leadership, told WTSB, “(We) made the decision not to hear any bill that could be construed as raising or authorizing taxes so late in the session. This bill was 1 of 10 bills that fell into this category. I did push to have House Bill 929 heard, but leadership was firm on their decision to wait until the long session next year to take up these bills, especially since the Senate received the bill so late in the session and did not receive a resolution of support until last Friday morning.”
After the announcement Denton Lee, spokesperson for committee attempting to form the Cleveland Park & Rec District, told WTSB, “The Cleveland Community is simply stunned that the N.C. Senate will not consider House Bill 929. This bill carried the N.C. House last week by a vote of 107-4, under the leadership of Rep. White and Rep. Strickland. This bill doesn’t raise taxes. It simply gives the Johnston County Commissioners the authority under G.S. 153A-302 to allow Cleveland citizens to voice their opinion in an advisory referendum whether or not we support the creation of a Recreation Service District. Commissioners currently have the ability to create a Recreation Service District where there is a demonstrable need by holding a public hearing. What could be more democratic than for each citizen to have the opportunity to vote for or against this essential service at the polls? We are wildly disappointed in Senators Jackson and Horner for not taking this bill to the floor of the Senate. The need for these services is greater than ever in our community, and Sen. Jackson and Sen. Horner are doing a disservice to all unincorporated areas of Johnston County by not supporting this bill.”
Because Johnston County does not have a countywide parks and recreation department, there are no public parks or family recreation areas in the Cleveland area. The Cleveland Parks and Recreation tax district would address those needs.
There are some opponents to the measure in Cleveland. They contend they don’t want to pay any additional taxes. But proponents argue the amenities would be greater than any additional taxes and could actually increase property values in the community.
If it had been approved, the district would tax Cleveland residents 4 cents per $100 valuation on their homes for recreation needs. A resident with a $100,000 home would pay $40 more per year.
Lee said the Parks & Recreation District would also help fund other needs. Lee said there is not a single child’s playground in the Cleveland community, outside those at public schools and those are often locked or not available to pre-school age children and their parents during school hours. There is not a single picnic shelter or table for a group to hold an outdoor event, or a community meeting room for scouts. “It’s not just about athletic fields, it’s about the whole concept of parks and recreation,” Lee said.
Lee also said it was important to begin to acquire land now before development takes it all over. “I am confident the quality of life will be improved for everyone in the community,” Lee added.
Parks and Recreation Districts were common in North Carolina in the 1950’s and 1960’s but not in recent years.
Senator Jackson said the bill can be refiled in 2019 to be heard during the long session. Senator Jackson added that General Assembly approval is not needed for this to move forward. He said Johnston County Commissioners already have the authority under Article 16 Chapter 153A of NC state law.
“It has been the County’s understanding that there is no legislative authority to allow for a voter referendum to establish recreation service districts,” Johnston County Manager Rick Hester told WTSB. “The Board of Commissioners intent was for citizens in the proposed district to have the opportunity to vote on whether or not they wanted to pay an additional tax for recreation.”