Medford aquatics center vote coming in May

MEDFORD, Ore. – You will only get one chance to vote on the City of Medford’s plan to build a $60 million dollar aquatics center. The vote is this May, tied up in a Measure that says nothing about funding the facility.

This isn’t the first time the city has sought to build or refurbish an aquatics facility. Pool proposals washed out with Medford voters in 1971, 1988, 1998, and 2012.  Sue White grew up in Medford and remembers each ‘NO’ vote. “I’m angry,” White told us. She is upset with the way the city is once again working to build a public pool. “If the voters knew that this was going to cost them money for 30 years, it’s not a need,” said White in reference to ballot Measure 15-188. It’s one of a set of bills that will appear on the May ballot for Medford residents.

The measure asks for an increase on the transient lodging tax from 9% to 11%. That’s the tax a person pays when staying at a hotel or motel. Measure 15-187 would also make all vacation rentals pay the tax, including AirBNB’s.

“It’s innovative, creative, the lightest possible touch on Medford citizens’ wallets,” commented Medford Parks and Recreation Director Rich Rosenthal when asked about the funding. He explains that the hotel tax change is essential to the pool plan. The money raised from the hotel tax increase would fund part of the estimated $57 to $60 million dollar construction cost for the aquatics facility, now dubbed the Medford Sports and Events Complex. However, that won’t be clear on the May ballot: “For the voters who just read the ballot, they will not see anything about that in the language of the ballot,” explained Rosenthal. He tells us that in order for the city to appear absolutely neutral, the title cannot include any language about plans for using the funding on the Complex. “It can’t, by State law,” said Rosenthal.

The city needs money from three other sources to complete the facility, so the hotel/motel tax is just one piece. It’s also only one reason White is concerned. When we asked City Councilor Clay Bearnson if this May’s ballot measure was the only opportunity for voters to have a say on the aquatics facility of this size, he told us, “Yes.” Councilor Bearnson explained that it’s entirely within City Council ability to approve the other three funding pieces for the facility, without going to the voters.

We spoke with the Medford City Manager about that, and he confirmed that people will only have a vote on the Aquatic Center by voting on the transient lodging tax. ” The only voter approved item that is necessary is the changes to the transient lodging tax,” City Manager Bryan Sjothun explained.

That’s something White says the voters need to know before they cast their May ballots. “People need to know your taxes will go up, your utility bills will go up. It’s not going to be a free ride for the next 30 years,” said White.

The city plans to get the rest of the funding through three other sources. The discussion is still fluid, but one of the primary sources under consideration is an increase to Medford resident’s parks utility fee. You will have a chance to weigh in on that and other funding possibilities during public comment at future city council meetings.

We spoke with the City Manager about that possible fee increase, including how much it could go up. Tune into NBC5 News at 6 on Wednesday for the details.

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