Covington aims to shift recreation to larger district

Covington, which for years has operated the only municipal youth sports leagues in St. Tammany Parish, wants out of the recreation business, and it wants some nearby residents to help foot the bill for continuing the programs under different auspices.

City leaders are supporting a proposal to revive the dormant Recreation District No. 10, which would take over administration of the city’s sports complex on De Porres Road and the leagues that go with it. The result, according to Covington Mayor Mike Cooper, would be expanded services, better facilities and savings to the city.

In order for that to happen, though, voters in the district will have to approve 4 mills of new property taxes, set to go on the ballot May 3.

Currently, Covington is able to offer only limited recreation programming, Cooper said. The city budgets about $600,000 per year for recreation, with $500,000 of that coming from a dedicated portion of the city’s 1982 1-cent sales tax. Beyond that $500,000, recreation must compete for funds with other city departments, which restricts what the city is able to offer.

“Our program pales in comparison to some of the others,” Cooper said. “It’s quite limited.”

He pointed to nearby recreation districts such as Coquille to the east and Pelican Park, which serves Mandeville. Both districts levy property taxes that support far larger programs at better facilities than the ones run by Covington, Cooper said.

Covington’s facilities need a major upgrade, said Christopher Brown, secretary of the board for Recreation District No. 10. The city’s recreation complex has four baseball fields but no facilities for football or basketball. Over the past decade, the lack of facilities has been a key factor in declining participation in Covington’s youth sports leagues, while Coquille and Pelican Park have seen participation soar, Brown said.

Shifting the programming to the recreation district would allow the cost of running the district to be spread across a wider area than Covington proper and, at the same time, would open up participation to a larger population.

The idea of funding a recreation district in and around Covington is not new. The district was originally created by the Parish Council more than two decades ago, but it has never had any money.

Similar tax proposals have gone before district voters three times in the past 20 years and have been rejected each time. The most recent failure was in 2004, when a 5-mill tax proposal failed by a 54 to 46 percent margin. At 4 mills, the latest proposal is the smallest of the four that have been put before the voters, Brown noted.

It’s not just the size of the tax that has changed — the district has evolved, too. Certain parts, especially south of Covington in areas like North Park and Crestwood Estates, which identify more with Mandeville than they do with Covington, have been shifted into Recreation District No. 1, which serves Mandeville and the surrounding areas. An area east of Covington, Tammany Hills, has also been shaved off and included in Recreation District No. 11, which serves the Abita Springs area.

The hope, Brown said, is that residents of the remaining areas will have greater support for the tax as well as a greater likelihood of participation in the district’s leagues.

The tax proposal that will go before voters May 3 is actually two linked measures, both of which must pass for either to take effect. One would levy a 2.5-mill tax for operations; it would provide about $650,000 a year. The second proposal is for a 1.5-mill tax that would underwrite $5 million in bonds that would be issued to make improvements to the recreation complex, Brown said.

About $4 million would go toward a gym, while the remaining $1 million would fund the construction of a football field and a practice field, Brown said. Upgrades to the parking, concession stands and bathroom facilities are also planned.

If the new taxes pass, Cooper hopes Covington can reduce or eliminate the annual city expenditures on recreation programs. But because $500,000 of sales tax revenue is dedicated to recreation, the city would have to find another way to use it for that general purpose. The money might be redirected to some of the city’s parks and playgrounds, which would not fall under the new district’s umbrella.

One thing not being considered, however, is lowering the tax that now funds recreation.

“We are not going to reduce the sales tax,” Cooper said. Instead, he has said he hopes to go before the voters with a plan to reallocate the sales tax, possibly as early as next fall.