By Mayor Shelby Rognstad
Last month I was discussing the incredible amenities and opportunities provided by trails and connectivity. I shared how far the region has come in the last 20 years to establish itself as a trails community. Trails create equitable access and improve public health and quality of life by giving people reasons and opportunity to go outside and play. In turn this stimulates the economy and makes Sandpoint an even more desirable place to live, work, start a business and raise a family.
We are blessed to be surrounded by public lands and natural habitat that are perfect for all kinds of trails. Couple this with the hard work and dedication locals have given to trail building, and Sandpoint is on the verge of reaching the next level, becoming a national destination for trails and the recreational opportunities they provide.
We have the natural resources, the community support and the vision to achieve this status. So what’s holding us back? We need to better organize to be more efficient with our limited resources — human resources, time and money. We need sustainable funding for trail construction and maintenance.
Trailmix has begun to do this work. It is a coalition of representatives from local, state and federal government agencies, nonprofits, and a wide variety of groups interested in local trails. The group created a vision for trail connectivity in the Bonner County Trail Plan. The plan includes all known trails in the region as well as trails envisioned for the future. It represents the aspirations of all trail users and unifies our gives us all a common goal to strive for. Trailmix has been set to task to develop a cohesive organizational structure that can advocate, build, maintain and fundraise to actualize the vision laid out in the plan. Historically, this work has been done by single user groups focused on a single trail, like Friends of the Pend Orielle Bay Trail or Friends of Mickinnick Trail. While groups like these will continue to be essential for ongoing maintenance, our little community lacks the capacity to continue building new trails. A new structure could expand this capacity while offering maintenance, fundraising, advocacy and other support.
Fundraising happens in four ways: philanthropy, grants, fees and levies. Up until now, we have only used the first two. While they have worked well for us, we have reached our limits as a community. There is increasing competition for increasingly limited grant dollars and the donor pool can only give so much.
Some communities charge user fees. In fact, Idaho charges registration fee for off-terrain recreational vehicles. In fact, that is how the Haye’s Gulch project (connecting to Gold Hill) was funded. But Idaho’s registration fees don’t support non-motorized trails. Non-motorized trails have no funding mechanism in Idaho.
Other communities have charged fees for non-motorized trail use. While this is certainly a possibility, it may be too difficult to manage and cost more to administer than it generates. It can also be a deterrent for many users.
A fourth option is a Recreation District Levy. This works like other levy districts in Idaho. It is a property tax levy, approved by voters. Three commissioners, elected by voters, represent the district and allocate the funds. This is how Selkirk Recreation District operates up on Schweitzer. SRD commits most of its funds for snow plowing in the winter and the remainder goes into the ever expanding trail network in the summer. This funding mechanism is common in many areas across the country. A levy of $20 per home (on average) in a district the size of the East Bonner County Library District would generate about $380,000/year. While that isn’t much, it enables a small dedicated staff and trail work to be committed every year. That budget could conceivably build out the Trail Plan in 20 years. It may even be able to offer some support to other recreation priorities identified by voters.
While passing a rec district levy would be a big hurdle, the pay-off would be huge and lasting. It would establish trail connectivity and quality of life as priorities and would cement Sandpoint’s identity as a destination location for year round recreation. This region would continue to attract tourists, quality employers and creatives that are the backbone of our innovative, diversified economy. Plus, we’d have a lot more fun on all those trails!
Please join me at the Mayor’s Roundtable Friday, Nov. 30, at the Cedar St. Bistro, 8 a.m., to discuss these topics and more. This will be the last meeting of 2018. Hope to see you there!
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