Yreka swimming pool sales tax heads to November ballot

Skip Descant
Special to the Siskiyou Daily News
This open lot at the corner of Foothill Drive and Sierra Vista Drive is the site of a proposed Yreka Swim Center and Native Park. The 7.8-acre site is currently owned by Siskiyou County, with the city to begin an acquisition and environmental review process.

The Yreka City Council reaffirmed a measure to move forward with placing a sales tax referendum on the November ballot to generate new funding to be used for the maintenance and operation of a new aquatic park, and fire department funding. 

The council voted 4-1 in favor of having voters decide the fate of a one-half percent sales tax. Councilwoman Deborah voted against it.

If the measure passes by 50% plus one vote, Yreka’s new sales tax rate would rise to 8.25%. The increase is expected to generate about $1 million a year, money needed to operate and maintain the new pool complex, and increase funding for the city’s volunteer fire department. If the voters turn down the tax increase, the city will not move forward with the pool project, and return the grant funding it was awarded by the state to build the development, estimated to cost $8.5 million. 

The swimming pool has been at the center of debate, as residents and council members see the project as either a worthy public amenity, or a luxury the city can ill afford or need. 

“What is opportune about building, constructing a park that we don’t need?” asked city resident Jan Osborn, in her public comments before the council, citing the city’s hiking trails, and other park amenities. “We don’t need a park. And we definitely don’t need a pool, let alone, two pools.

“Pools are luxuries,” she added. “They’re not needs.”  

Ringe Pool on Knapp Drive in Yreka was built in 1962 and operated until 2017 when a large crack was discovered. Replacing the pool with a new facility on the site is estimated to cost about $6.5 million. The City Council will consider this option, and another, which would build a new swimming pool complex on Foothill Drive.

Osborn went on to urge the council to cease any further development on the project, and deny the voters the chance to make up their own minds. 

“Return the grant. Don’t spend any money. Don’t up print any ballots,” said Osborn. 

The council rejected this austere vision for the city, with Councilman Corey Middleton replying, “why not more?” 

“I support it. I supported it from day one,” said Middleton. “I am full speed ahead.”

But ultimately, the debate at the council’s May 3 meeting seemed to be more about the careful parsing of words, particularly related to how the new tax money might be used. To be clear, if the measure passes, the money will be sent to the city’s general fund. It is the intention of the council to use the money to support the pool and fire department, but it will not be legally earmarked. To achieve that level of assurance, the vote would require a two-thirds approval for passage, admittedly, a higher bar than the 50% threshold.  

So, the wording on the council’s resolution reads “one-half percent sales tax for the general fund to primarily fund maintenance and operation” of the new pool complex, and “other city parks, necessary fire, and other essential city services.” 

“In my view, if we’re going to do this, I say, and in my opinion, half this money needs to go to fire protection,” said Mayor Duane Kegg, affirming his vision for how the city should dedicate the new funding.  

It was this “bundling” of the pool and fire department that seemed to irk Baird, the lone no vote, saying the ballot language combines a non-essential service like a new swimming pool, with an essential service like fire protection.

Ringe Pool on Knapp Drive in Yreka was built in 1962 and operated until 2017 when a large crack was discovered. Replacing the pool with a new facility on the site is estimated to cost about $6.5 million. The City Council will consider this option, and another, which would build a new swimming pool complex on Foothill Drive.

“I think that’s an unfair decision we’re asking the community to make, said Baird. 

Lorenzo Love, a frequent commenter at City Council meetings, took issue with the council strategy to mingle the pool and fire services in the ballot language, particularly since it’s non-binding and the general fund can be spent however the council chooses. 

“It’s not going to go to the fire department. You all know that,” said Love, his voice rising to a near shout, as he continued to call the tax measure “deceptive.”

Skip Descadnt is a freelance journalist. He’s written for newspapers in California, Arkansas, Mississippi and Louisiana. He lives in downtown Yreka.