The other night, activists, volunteers, and parks staff packed into City Council chambers to discuss Seattle’s proposed Metropolitan Parks District. Beyond the ailing state of the city’s parks — officials estimate a maintenance backlog around $270 million — supporters and opponents agreed on few details.
The philosophical divide was often stark, as it has been since the city parks-funding proposal’s debut. The district’s proponents emphasize the importance of making it easier to raise revenue for critical parks maintenance and improvements. Opponents express concern that a Metropolitan Parks District, which could levy up to $375 of additional property tax per year on a $500,000 home, would lack the financial restraint and line-item specificity about spending purposes offered by the voter-approved levies under which most major Seattle parks have been approved up to now.
During more than two hours of public comment on April 7, lines of conflict were generally drawn around mechanisms for funding.
Another part of the MPD proposal has received less attention, but may prove an equally contentious issue: Who would be in charge of the new Metropolitan Parks District’s considerable taxing authority?
The plan proposed by the City Council and Mayor Ed Murray would keep this authority with the Council. This model — where the City Council serves as Parks Board in an “ex officio” capacity — seems like a natural progression. The proposed Metropolitan Parks District (despite the name, it would only involve City of Seattle parks) will operate on the basis of an inter-local agreement (ILA) between the City and the Council (as Parks Board). The ILA would essentially be a unilateral agreement, binding the City Council to itself. However, the ILA can also be used to enumerate the MPD's responsibilities and powers, and does require the Council's formal amendment (subject to mayoral veto) to modify..
This model would closely resemble the current system, under which the parks system is subject to City Council oversight. However, statewide, this form isn't the most common for parks districts. Across Washington state’s 16 metropolitan parks districts, only four use the City Council as the parks board. And those cases would be markedly different situations. In Tukwila, the parks district operates a single public swimming pool, not a farflung collection of parks and facilities like Seattle has. The others serve relatively small cities: Normandy Park (pop. 6,500); Pullman (31,400); and Shelton (9,800).
By contrast, the residents of many of the state’s larger metropolitan parks districts — including Tacoma’s — elect their parks commissioners. Why, then, shouldn’t Seattle?
A scene in Discovery Park Wonderlane/Flickr
In a 1999 blog post, Councilmember Nick Licata lays out the basic arguments for Council control. An ex officio board, he writes, “would avoid creating a new bureaucracy,” and “avoid having city parks divided between MPD managed properties and City managed ones.” Rejecting claims that an independent board fosters accountability, Licata argues that it instead “fracture[s] policymaking,” potentially leaving “competing bodies…vying for the same public revenue base.” Seattle voters, he notes, do not elect an independent board for Seattle City Light, which boasts a larger budget than Parks.
When I contacted Licata last Tuesday, he reaffirmed his previous commitment to an ex officio Parks Board. He was especially skeptical of claims that an independent board would foster greater accountability. “That’s a pretty strange argument,” Licata said, “[since] what you’re basically arguing for there is separating city functions into separate accountability boards, and I don’t think you’re getting as good of a response.”
Another plus in Licata’s estimation: continuity. He argued that the Seattle City Council is a known quantity on parks issues, and a separate board could potentially squander well-built social capital. Speaking of labor in particular, Licata explained that much of unions' support of the MPD comes from their familiarity with the Council, and fears that a separate board might require new bargaining units. “They have a relationship with the City,” Licata explained, “and they see the Council as tried and true, something that works.”
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