Paying for city parks: District v. levy

Scenic Golden Gardens is just one of the parks on the city's maintenance to-do list. Credit: Credit: Wonderland/Flickr

It would have been a great evening to be at a park with the temperatures in the high sixties and partly cloudy skies. But as the sun sank outside City Hall on Monday, a near-capacity crowd packed the council chambers to air their views on a plan to help fund Seattle’s parks, open spaces and community centers.

During a roughly three-hour meeting, the City Council heard public comments about the Metropolitan Parks District (MPD) backed by Mayor Ed Murray. Proponents say the district plan would provide a stable funding source to help pay for backlogged maintenance. Opponents typically favored a parks levy, like the one voters approved in 2008, which expires at the end of this year. They also worried that voters would not be able to hold the district accountable, that the proposal was being rushed and about the future tax hikes. 

The district proposal would raise $54 million annually through a property tax, according to the Mayor’s Office. Property owners would pay $0.42 per $1,000 of assessed value, meaning that a resident with a $450,000 home would pay $189 annually. Under the current Parks and Green Spaces Levy the same homeowner would pay about $85. The six-year levy has produced around $24 million annually in tax revenue since it went into effect in 2009.

“A levy is a recipe for decline,” said Brad Kahn, a board member at the Seattle Parks Foundation, a nonprofit that advocates and raises money for public spaces. “We need a stable dedicated source of funding. A parks district is the best vehicle.”

Rusty Williams, ex-chairman of the Magnuson Park Advisory Committee, took the opposite stance. “I am a parks guy,” Williams said, before sharing his concern that since voters would not understand the district proposal it would fail at the ballot box. “The levy system is the way to go,” Williams insisted. “People vote for levies and they always pass.”

The parks district would be an independent taxing authority that could levy up to $0.75 per $1,000 of assessed property value. The revenue the parks district produces would flow into the Seattle Parks and Recreation budget. The City Council members would serve as the district's governing board and it would not have any employees. Once created, the parks district could only be dissolved through a vote by the board.

“We’ll vote no on an MPD, which can charge as much as four times more” than the levy, said Sharon LeVine, who called the district "unaffordable" and said it was being rushed to the ballot. She also expressed concerns that the district’s tax rate could be raised without a public vote, and noted other future costs Seattle would likely face for universal pre-school, streetcar construction and the proposed waterfront park.

The 2014 parks and recreation budget is $135 million. Murray and other proponents of the district plan say it is needed to help pay for a $267 million parks maintenance backlog. The maintenance list includes a wide range of projects such as athletic field renovations, drainage improvements and roof repairs. The district would contribute about $29 million annually to major parks maintenance.

Ed D’Alessandro, Executive Director for the Seattle Youth Soccer Association, said the city needs more playing fields, particularly at Magnuson Park. “The MPD seems like a better funding model than the levy system,” he said. “Over time it should provide better and more predictable funding.”

At least two speakers mentioned the problem of invasive holly on the city's parklands. Another said that Seattle should charge developers "impact fees" to help pay for parks rather than create the district. One district supporter in the crowd wore a hat made from fake pine boughs and decorated with small ornamental birds.

Liem Le, speaking through a Vietnamese translator, said: "I want to see more funding for low income income and historically underserved communities." Le joined a group of Yesler Terrace residents who are for the parks district and wanted more programming at their local community center.

In addition to maintenance, the district would also help fund extended community center hours, programs for seniors and developing new parks on land the city already owns. Seattle currently has 465 parks and 26 community centers, according to the Mayor's Office.

In order to get the district measure on a ballot in August, the City Council will have to approve the proposal by May 5.

"It’s clear we love our parks here in Seattle,” said Brad Kahn, the parks foundation board member. “It’s a sunny night, it’s Final Four basketball, this place is packed. I don’t think there’s any disagreement on that.”

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