Seattle parks plan: Why does City Council want to control it?

Proponents of Mayor Murray’s metropolitan parks district proposal say an independent Parks Board would be prone to inefficiency and conflict. Others aren’t so sure.
A scene in Seattle's Discovery Park

A scene in Seattle's Discovery Park Wonderlane/Flickr

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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Comments:

Posted Fri, Apr 18, 8:06 a.m. Inappropriate

Does this mean that this proposal of up to $375m would supplant or supplement the approximately $135M in the 2014 city budget?

It is one thing to have the transfer be tax neutral, and another if the current city funding goes elsewhere in the budget and the proposed park district is an incremental addition to the tax burden.

ruffner

Posted Fri, Apr 18, 10:46 a.m. Inappropriate

What I've heard is that it would supplement.

What I fear is that it will end up supplanting.

So I suppose we're on opposite sides of this. If implemented as promised, you won't be happy, but I will. If it turns out as I fear it will, you'll be happy, but I won't.

Posted Fri, Apr 18, 11:58 a.m. Inappropriate

The ILA specifies Council has to provide a minimum of $89M (I think) to the MPD. Since Council is making this contract with themselves, and Council (so far) refuses to put the ILA in the voted MPD measure (which means it could not be changed without a ballot vote), this is a promise and not a guarantee.

It should be noted this reduced funding figure from Council is one "feature" of the MPD and part of a multi-year trend in City finances - shift General Fund responsibilities to levies to free up General Fund money for "other things".

ddmiller

Posted Fri, Apr 18, 8:31 a.m. Inappropriate

"The district’s proponents emphasize the importance of making it easier to raise revenue for critical parks maintenance and improvements." Yes, that's the whole idea--remove citizens' ability to reject more taxation and allow an MPD to hit us up willy nilly anytime they want. No, thank you.

And the idea of a self-referential MPD where "The ILA would essentially be a unilateral agreement, binding the City Council to itself," means to me that the only parks we'll have left will be those built as front yards for the overbuilt city the current council and it's directors the developers envision. Again, no, thanks.

mspat

Posted Fri, Apr 18, 9:52 a.m. Inappropriate

Well, remember what the Legacy Cmte co-chair said to council about the 80% at the public hearings who opposed the MPD: those folks just don't know any better..... Translated: the powers that be want a paternalistic system that decides how much to tax (in addition to the general fund) and what tax dollars will be used for, I.e the council's latest pet project....waterfront park glam, basketball arena...or just freeing up money in the general fund for other departments.... MPD takes way too much away from the tax paying voter.

Posted Mon, Apr 21, 12:48 p.m. Inappropriate

Actually, the figure was 81%. Guess that overhwhelming response just wasn't convincing enough to Bagshaw and her co-conspirators.

Jones

Posted Fri, Apr 18, 8:56 a.m. Inappropriate

"Beyond the ailing state of the city’s parks"

Seattle parks have the some of the highest per capita spending in the US. 40% higher than Portland. We know what wiles the parks and it's not a tax problem

Simon

Posted Fri, Apr 18, 8:57 a.m. Inappropriate

" wiles " = ailes!

Simon

Posted Mon, Apr 21, 1:04 a.m. Inappropriate

ails!

sarah90

Posted Mon, Apr 21, 12:51 p.m. Inappropriate

Surely you don't mean that Roger guy. :)

Jones

Posted Fri, Apr 18, 9:01 a.m. Inappropriate

Oh, and the parks need to get out of the education business.

Simon

Posted Fri, Apr 18, 9:25 a.m. Inappropriate

Simon, are you talking about the $551,000/yr additional a year for job training? I always thought that should be in a different department.

Posted Fri, Apr 18, 9:40 a.m. Inappropriate

And please note off-leash dog owner in photo. This is 1 of the most serious problems in Discovery Park. Many people feel "entitled" to ignore the rules, but the rules are there for good reasons. And how will the new MPD, under the same city council, address this problem???

Brooknook

Posted Fri, Apr 18, 10:47 a.m. Inappropriate

Also, how would the new MPD deal with the private houses in the middle of the park, and the proposal that the lots be subdivided so that each one is its own parcel?

Posted Fri, Apr 18, 8:40 p.m. Inappropriate

RE: Off-leash dog in photo: THANK YOU!! True in all parks.

Posted Fri, Apr 18, 11:33 a.m. Inappropriate

This whole proposal of taking away the right to vote on taxes and "extra projects" is a step backward, considering Seattle just voted for MORE control via Council Districts. And, this is City Council's response--a power grab!? As you may recall, the original argument was "citizens don't want to have to be bothered with voting on periodic levies" as though that was a benefit. How out of touch are they? .... they will be very out of touch when the MPD fails AND they get voted out of office!

Posted Fri, Apr 18, 12:09 p.m. Inappropriate

It's hypocritical to say you don't trust Council on one hadn and then cite (or previously supported) Charter Amendment 19 on the other. Either CA19 and districts give us a more responsive Council -- negating your argument that Council shouldn't be trusted -- or it doesn't.

You can't have it both ways.

ddmiller

Posted Fri, Apr 18, 2:50 p.m. Inappropriate

I don't think fear of the city council managing a new taxing parks district is hypocritical; it's justifiable paranoia. Just because we voted for Charter 19 doesn't mean we're going to get a more responsive or less downtown oligarchy oriented council. We won't know until November 2015.

Furthermore, Anderstone's argument about lack of focus by the council on parks is accurate; why should we trust the council, even a more responsive districts oriented council, to give first priority to parks when the competition for attention and funds are early childhood education, bike lanes, and a dozen other "priorities"? If we're going to split Parks off from the rest of the Executive and give it separate and higher taxing authority (without another vote, EVER), we should also split off its management.

This MPD is a power grab by the oligarchs before the district council is elected in 2015. We shouldn't say "no," we should say "hell no!"

Licata's position is particularly disappointing. If the only real liberal to left council member thinks this MPD proposal is good governance, we really do need a large turnover...

louploup

Posted Wed, Apr 23, 11:40 p.m. Inappropriate

I voted for Charter Amendment 19, but that doesn't mean I'm going to trust City Council. Seattle's spendaholic government epidemic is citywide by district too. So I'm guessing the commenter does not deserve hypercriticism for being hypocritical.

Posted Fri, Apr 18, 2:17 p.m. Inappropriate

Thanks for increasing awareness of what should be the most important part of our decision on an MPD.

Unfortunately the idea of having a board separate from the City Council govern a Seattle MPD has probably been purposely ignored or suppressed by those controlling the legacy process.

Politicians don't like to give up control or ability to hand out park favors. And present park bureaucrats probably perceive change as threatening. Regardless of that there are some reasonable arguments for each side of the question, although at least initially it seems having a more independent MPD would be better for the public and parks.

Asking the public to approve and MPD before there is full consideration of governance alternatives begs rejection.

At this point few of us have heard all the arguments or know enough to judge.It will take some time for that. Ideally it should happen before the public has to vote on an MPD and if increased funding is needed before then it should be via a short term levy.

At first glance it seems a new elected MPD board would be more accountable than the City Council because their performance could be judged solely on park issues whereas other issues would affect council member elections.

How the future council members, elected by districts would perform and whether they would have broad vision or just cut narrow minded deals for parks in their districts is a legitimate concern.

It also seems that being focused only on park issues could result in a new board providing better oversight and direction. At present even the few council members assigned to the park committee give it only a small portion of their time and thus less attention than an elected and dedicated board could provide.

Although there is a board of park commissioners at present it is not elected, represents no one, and is perceived by many as a largely ineffective rubber stamp for staff.

Independent governance by a new MPD Board may also lead to new efficiency by freeing parks from some City imposed constraints and costs. Alternatively some may argue that there is advantage to those limitations and even cost reduction due to things like larger volume purchases.

At present influence or demands from other City Departments sometimes adversely affect parks and having an independent MPD may prevent that. On the other hand some may make the case that park interests should yield to other city government interests. Some might argue there is is already cost shifting in favor of parks and that eliminating it would detract from parks.

Hoping for full airing of the governance question,

Citizen

Posted Fri, Apr 18, 3:01 p.m. Inappropriate

Good comments.

"if increased funding is needed" -- How would we know how accurate the numbers are; Parks has never had a complete audit. Over 20 employees make over $100,000 and took pay raises as lower wage employees were being cut.

The problem we face right now is the MPD proposal is wired for placement on the August 5 ballot, right during vacation time. In a non-municipal election year. How are we supposed to have a "full airing" of the governance issue in the next three and half months [edit--and the final deal has to be voted on by the council in less than two weeks no matter how half baked it is] when the dialogue has already been constrained? As with the separate managing board issue, the option of using impact fees as part of a new revenue stream was also shoved off the table. Explicitly: http://www.seattlechannel.org/videos/video.asp?ID=5011360&file;=1 [go to minute 43]

louploup

Posted Fri, Apr 18, 4:38 p.m. Inappropriate

A Funding Idea for Parks

The bridges, the tunnel, the sea wall, the schools, the pre-schools, the buses, the rails light and heavy, the trolleys, the roads …. The tax bill is frightening.

So before Seattle’s mayor and city council double the property tax for parks and saddle taxpayers with another special tax district, they should consider at least one out of the box alternative. It has been suggested before but fainthearted, unimaginative politicians ignored it preferring to do what they always do, raise taxes. The idea, establish an endowment for the Seattle Parks Department. And where would the endowment funds come from? Sell Seattle City Light to a private investor. One can almost hear the anguished cry from the 1930s public power populists not to mention a certain newly elected city councilwoman. But in today’s economy and with taxpayer burnout on the horizon, it merits a second look.

It would only take an inexpensive study by a mergers and acquisitions firm to determine approximately how much money the sale of Seattle City Light would generate, surely in the billions. They could also forecast if a conservative return on investment would be sufficient to fully fund the Seattle Parks Department. If the answer is yes, the benefits would be significant:

1. Permanent and predictable funding for the parks.
2. Lower taxes since a major part of Seattle’s budget would be covered by the endowment, not the taxpayers.
3. The private utility rates would be controlled by the Washington State Utilities and Transportation Commission with a professional staff rather than by the politically influenced city council.
4. Rates would remain competitive because the private utility, like City Light, would own the hydro generation facilities. A private utility is also likely to operate more efficiently and pay closer attention to maintenance and infrastructure improvements.

If the city can seriously study jumping the minimum wage 62%, it can look at replacing some taxes with an endowment. A wacko idea, maybe, but considering some of the local elections and public projects we have endured lately, not so much.

wep

Posted Fri, Apr 18, 4:59 p.m. Inappropriate

You're right about the response: We should NEVER sell off publicly owned utilities. It's a step back into Nineteenth Century governance. The arguments in favor of publicly owned power from the early Twentieth Century are still valid. And unlike Parks, City Light is not in need of a management overhaul; your point 4 is inaccurate.

The idea of an endowment is a good one. The proposed source of the money is not.

louploup

Posted Fri, Apr 18, 6:57 p.m. Inappropriate

Agreed City Light is not in need of an overhaul - selling it would be a very big mistake.

I would be more inclined to vote for a MPD if included a separate board and a separate citizen oversight committee.

Treker

Posted Fri, Apr 18, 6:29 p.m. Inappropriate

"Seattle voters, he notes, do not elect an independent board for Seattle City Light, which boasts a larger budget than Parks."

CM Licata ignores every neutral, independent review of City Light, which has recommended an independent board.

Posted Fri, Apr 18, 6:59 p.m. Inappropriate

I'm curious about this - can you provide links to these "independent reviews"

Treker

Posted Sat, Apr 19, 12:13 p.m. Inappropriate

How much of the current parks funding problem is a result of the last parks levy providing no funding for maintenance? Council could have asked voters to revise the last levy, to allow some portion of the funds to be used for maintenance; however, they chose not to do this.

Continuing the present system of funding via levies, with levies including funds for maintenance, would leave control in the hands of the voters. I believe all recent levies for parks have passed with solid majorities. Given voter support what is the purpose of the MPD if not to raise taxes and simultaneously remove control from Seattle's citizens?

By having an August ballot with the MPD as the only option, voters are forced to vote "for" or "against" parks.

If the vote were delayed to November and if the ballot offered an "either-or" option -- an MPD or a levy including maintenance, then Seattle citizens would actually be able to decide which funding option they prefer.

Posted Mon, Apr 21, 12:55 p.m. Inappropriate

Bagshaw says, “We have our fingers on the pulse of everything, and we’re thinking about this as a whole.”

More accurate for Bagshaw to say they have their fingers in the pie, and they're thinking about eating the whole thing themselves.

Jones

Posted Tue, Apr 22, 11:40 p.m. Inappropriate

The parks levy is to parks what bridging the gap was to streets: A cheesy fraud. Support this thing, and you'll have remote bureaucrats spending a huge new slush fund on another downtown needle park, and ignoring the parks we have. No one should waste a microsecond taking a single one of these people at their word.

NotFan

Posted Wed, Apr 23, 2:34 p.m. Inappropriate

Hey!! This is the first post where you didn't say progressives! Been at aversion therapy?

Lily32

Posted Wed, Apr 23, 11:58 p.m. Inappropriate

Citizens regularly enjoy their parks, three or four times every day in my case. Citizens rarely must deal with -- and never enjoy -- fire, crime, burnt out streetlights, too-deep potholes and land use wars. So I'm thinking City Council is best tasked to protect us and the Parks Board is tasked with increasing our happiness through recreation and nature. However, since Parks is a basic municipal service, lets not pretend it is an income-producing utility. The Parks budget belongs in the General Fund, not in a special taxing district taxing the same constituency.

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