TRAVERSE CITY — City residents may face a November vote on whether they'd support tapping into a $13.2 million oil and gas trust fund to upgrade municipal parks or boost restoration efforts at the Brown Bridge Dam area.
The city’s Brown Bridge Trust Fund was created in 1978 to collect royalty revenues from oil and gas wells at the municipally owned Brown Bridge Quiet Area. Royalties generated at the 1,300-acre property are deposited every year into the trust fund, and interest income is transferred into the city’s general fund.
The trust fund's large balance prompted a debate among city leaders about whether to use some of that money to pay for park upgrades, Brown Bridge area restoration, or perhaps even land acquisitions.
“We are all pretty well aware that our city parks could use some capital improvements,” Traverse City Mayor Michael Estes said. “The city budget cannot do everything …. we have the money available, and there’s no sense of putting money into a bank account for no purpose.”
Another option under discussion: capping the oil and gas fund’s balance at $12 million.
A 60 percent voter approval is required for a one-time withdrawal of money from the trust fund. Capping the fund requires an amendment to the city charter, which in turn requires a simple majority of voters.
Voters twice approved accessing trust fund money in the last 35 years. In 1987 some money was used to purchase property on West Bay that was owned by C&O Railroad. In 1994 voters approved buying additional property near the Brown Bridge Quiet Area.
City Commissioner Jim Carruthers said some discussion is focused on using fund money to restore natural areas at the site of the old Brown Bridge Dam. The dam was removed this year as part of a plan to remove three dams on the Boardman River.
“If we are going to go to the voters, we need to be able to say, ‘These are the projects we are funding, this is what it’s going to cost and here’s how we are going to go about it,’” Carruthers said.
City Manager Ben Bifoss said such talks are in the preliminary stages. No decisions have been made about what, if anything, to do with the money, he said.
“At some point, should (city residents) get the benefits of those funds, and if so, at what point and for what purpose?” Bifoss said.
The city is in the middle of a significant upgrade to Clinch Park. The $3 million upgrade will feature a splash pool, a rainfall fountain, an artesian well display, concession stand, terraces and new bathhouse with expanded restroom facilities.
The city has 33 other parks. Lauren Vaughn, parks and recreation superintendent, said there’s a need for upgrades to several neighborhood parks.
“We desperately need (an upgrade) with the West End Beach bathroom building," Vaughn said. "It definitely needs replacing or serious upgrading. We want to do some more with our neighborhood parks like Clancy Park, Indian Woods and Ashton. There needs to be an upgrading to some of the play equipment or other portions of the parks.”