Few things are as prized in the Sacramento County suburbs as parks, and residents of the Mission Oaks Recreation and Park District are fighting hard to prevent a merger with their neighbors to the east.
The battle comes after county-hired consultants recommended that Mission Oaks consolidate with the Carmichael Recreation and Park District to save costs and expand access to services across a large swath of northeast Sacramento County.
But Mission Oaks residents say the marriage would only benefit Carmichael. They say Mission Oaks remains on a strong financial footing and has far more money to spend per acre, especially after courts struck down a property assessment in the Carmichael district.
“All of us are united against doing this merger,” Mission Oaks resident Elaine Pickford said. “We are happy with the way the district has been run and they have been prudent in setting aside a rainy day for future needed repairs. I think that Carmichael would just be raiding the money we’ve been spending cautiously.”
Both districts serve Sacramento County suburbs that expanded in the second half of the 20th century, stretching from the American River into miles of middle-class neighborhoods through Arden Arcade and Carmichael. The Mission Oaks district also serves some of the county’s most affluent neighborhoods, Wilhaggin and part of Sierra Oaks.
After officials discussed a merger in 1996 and 2006, Sacramento County revived the idea this year by commissioning two consulting firms to investigate the benefits and drawbacks. The feasibility report, available on both park districts’ websites, determined the merger to be its “preferred recommendation.”
According to the report, a merger would lead to cost savings, expanded access to parks and the ability to create a capital improvement fund to acquire more park land and improve existing parks.
Mission Oaks district administrator Jack Harrison, a former administrator for Carmichael’s Recreation and Park district from 2006-13, said the two districts have long cooperated with each other, which is one of the reasons why a merger is being considered.
Carmichael has lighted tennis courts and lighted softball fields that Mission Oaks does not have. Carmichael did not build a senior center in its district because it knew Mission Oaks had one. Harrison said residents of both districts have access to each other’s facilities without extra cost.
“The two districts have been great partners for a long, long time,” Harrison said. “These two park districts have worked together in a way that is unlike any other two districts in the region.”
But Mission Oaks residents are concerned because of the budget numbers. According to the consultants’ report, in 2014-15, the Carmichael district broke roughly even on its $4.1 million budget, while the Mission Oaks district took in $2 million more than its $5 million in expenditures.
“The advisory board and staff for Mission Oaks appears to have done an excellent job of using the funds,” Mission Oaks resident Greg Gillen said. “Everything that I see and hear ... is that Mission Oaks is doing very well. This appears to be a shortcut way to get money for Carmichael because of how well-run Mission Oaks is.”
Harrison said that both districts are financially stable and that Mission Oaks residents have nothing to worry about.
“(Carmichael is) financially stable,” Harrison said. “They’re not in the red operationally, but they do have a longer list of projects they have to take care of. People are making the assumption that if the two districts become one, that the money from Mission Oaks would have to pay for all of Carmichael’s projects. That’s not true, the new board will have to decide what the priorities are.”
Mission Oaks has more funding than Carmichael in part because of its park assessment fee. That fee generates nearly $950,000 to be used strictly for park maintenance and improvement, according to the feasibility report.
Carmichael passed a similar fee in 2014, but a Sacramento Superior Court judge ruled Carmichael’s park assessment fee illegal in October 2015 after a taxpayer group filed a lawsuit. The fee was expected to generate $700,000 annually.
The court ruling, as well as Carmichael managing nearly twice the park acreage of Mission Oaks, results in Mission Oaks spending far more per acre. According to the report, Mission Oaks spends more than $10,000 per acre while Carmichael spends just over $6,000.
Harrison said that if the districts consolidate, Carmichael would not pay the same assessment fee. But he said the new district would be legally bound to ensure that the funds are only spent within Mission Oaks’ current boundaries.
Harrison said the Mission Oaks district has a separate budget from the park district’s general fund. Every year, residents review the budget to approve how funds are spent, which ensures that no funds may be used outside of the district.
Even though the money generated from the assessment will stay within the district, Mission Oaks’ residents are still unsure about how the consolidation would benefit them.
The feasibility report states that a merger would lead to “improved level of service for park and facility maintenance due to larger combined budget, especially in the parks and facilities in the current Carmichael District.” Specific benefits for Mission Oaks are not mentioned in the same portion of the report.
“My preference, at this point, is to do nothing,” Gillen said. “This report does not present anything of substance. Doing a little restructuring to try and combine some of the things, there’s costs involved with that. It’s not clear how much the real savings would be for the Mission Oaks district for doing all of that.”
The Mission Oaks and Carmichael district advisory boards have each held two meetings to allow the public to voice their concerns about the proposal. At the Mission Oaks meetings, hundreds have voiced their concerns.
Harrison said the consolidation is far from a guarantee because of a lengthy approval process.
The two boards will vote independently in mid-August and will deliver their recommendations to Sacramento County Supervisor Susan Peters. Peters will then to decide whether she wants to bring the merger in front of the Sacramento County Board of Supervisors for a vote. If the Board of Supervisors passes the recommendation, it will go to the Sacramento Local Agency Formation Commission, which will make the final decision.
In an email, Peters did not say whether she supports the merger. She said that regardless of what happens, the “consultant’s report provides an objective unbiased operational analysis” that would allow for better management of the parks.
Harrison said if the merger is approved, the process will take a minimum of two years.
“To me that’s a really big assumption people are making, that this is going to happen,” Harrison said. “There’s a lot of steps to go through, a lot of review and a lot of public process. And it can stop at any point.”