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City ordered to give more details about parks initiative

After an appeal by activists, the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission decides the city should add information about the proposed metropolitan parks district to the voters' guide.
A scene in Seattle's Discovery Park

A scene in Seattle's Discovery Park Wonderlane/Flickr

Following a ruling by the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission, voters will receive some extra information to help them understand an upcoming ballot measure about city parks. The proposal going before voters would create a new taxing district to provide additional funding for parks.

Two neighborhood activist groups and a lawyer had filed an appeal with the commission over language the city included in the voters' guide statement describing Proposition 1, which would create the Seattle Park District. The initiative will appear on the August 5 primary ballot. At a hearing on Tuesday, the commission dismissed some of the challengers' appeals but ruled that the voters' guide statement must include more information about the district's ability to levy property taxes outside the limits that state law imposes on the city. The commission's revisions also include new language about what it would take to dissolve the district.

Toby Thaler, the lawyer involved in the appeal, said the original language describing the measure for the voters' guide was inadequate. He said the wording gave voters no idea of the permanence of the proposed district and its property-taxing authority.

The City Attorney's Office argued that Thaler and his allies were not acknowledging the effect of an "inter-local agreement" between the city and the parks district, which Mayor Ed Murray has already signed. The agreement would govern the operation of the parks district and limit its activities, according to a brief the City Attorney's Office filed with the commission. The brief says that based on the agreement there are no plans for the district to exercise the most sweeping powers it is afforded under state law — for example, raising revenue to build airports.

In the brief, the City Attorney's Office said it "believes that for the voters to understand 'the effect of the measure,' they should understand what would actually happen if the creation of the Seattle Park District is approved." 

Backers of the initiative say that the district is needed to help create a stable source of funding for parks and to pay for a large maintenance backlog that the city estimates is $267 million. A six-year, voter-approved property tax levy that provided roughly $24 million in annual parks funding is set to expire this year. The district measure, as proposed, would raise about $48 million each year. Seattle would continue to allocate at least $89 million per year for parks in general fund revenues, under the proposed district plan.

The Seattle Community Council Federation and Seattle Displacement Coalition joined Thaler in filing the appeal. The displacement coalition also filed a lawsuit over the initiative's title in King County Superior Court. A judge ruled last week that wording should be added to the title to describe the overall amount the district could levy in property taxes.

The parks district would be an independent taxing authority. It would not be subject to the state-imposed cap on the city's property tax levies, which is set at $3.60 per $1,000 of assessed value. The district could levy up to 75 cents per thousand dollars of assessed value. Language that will be added to the voters' guide after yesterday's ruling will note that this rate of taxation is equal to $330 annually on a $440,000 home.

The City Council, which would serve as the district's governing board, has said that it will set the tax rate at 33 cents per $1,000 dollars of assessed value. The district's authority to impose the tax would begin in 2016.

Mayor Murray proposed the park district legislation back in March. The City Council voted in April to put it on the upcoming ballot.

Language that Thaler praised as a particularly valuable addition to the voters' guide statement reads: "The District may only be dissolved or its actions reversed by its governing body or a change in state law, but not by local initiative." In other words, only the City Council members, acting as district commissioners, would be able to abolish the district locally, or undo its decisions. 

City Attorney Pete Holmes disagreed with this revision, according to Kimberly Mills, a spokesperson for his office. 

A sentence included in an earlier version of the voters' guide statement said that the governing body "may choose to dissolve" the district at the city's request, or if faced with a petition from 10 percent of voters asking them to do so. This original language, Mills said in an email, "correctly advised voters of their right to petition to dissolve the District, whereas the revised sentence could be read to suggest — inaccurately — that voters have no say in the continued existence of the District."

The brief filed by the City Attorney's Office also notes that City Council members are "directly answerable to Seattle's voters."

Wayne Barnett, executive director of the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission, pointed to a 2011 initiative related to the Highway 99 tunnel project as an example of another ballot measure where the wording in the voters' guide was appealed. The commission sided mostly with the city in that ruling.

"It is not uncommon for the commission to take a look at these explanatory statements," Barnett said.

City Councilmember Sally Bagshaw, who chaired the Select Committee on Parks Funding, expressed support for the revisions to the voters' guide language and the initiative title.

"Ultimately I'm very pleased that the changes to the ballot title and the explanatory statement clarify the previous versions," she said. "It gives the campaign an opportunity to show individuals what they're going to get for their money."

Bagshaw added, "You don't want voters to be confused."

Disclosure: Councilmember Bagshaw is married to Crosscut Board President Bradley Bagshaw.

Bill Lucia writes about Seattle City Hall and politics for Crosscut. He can be reached at bill.lucia@crosscut.com and you can follow him on Twitter @bill_lucia.


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Comments:

Posted Wed, Jun 4, 11:27 p.m. Inappropriate

"The City Attorney's Office argued that Thaler and his allies were not acknowledging the effect of an "inter-local agreement" between the city and the parks district, which Mayor Ed Murray has already signed."

I'm confused. If the district does not yet exist, how can the Mayor have already signed an inter-local agreement with it?

afreeman

Posted Wed, Jun 4, 11:46 p.m. Inappropriate

afreeman,

Thanks for your comment. From the City Attorney's Office brief: "The Mayor has already signed the [inter-local agreement]. But the ILA cannot yet be executed by the Park District, which would not exist unless its creation is approved by the voters."

Posted Thu, Jun 5, 6:29 a.m. Inappropriate

What happens to the money that the city puts toward park operations now? Is it all funded from the existing levy, or is some funded from the general fund? Would this new agency take over the entire Seattle Parks @ Recreation department, including all of the community centers, the aquarium and the Zoo?

talisker

Posted Thu, Jun 5, 9:09 a.m. Inappropriate

I know I haven't been paying attention, so I have to ask. Has an audit been done? This MPD proposal sounds like a spinoff. The private sector would have done an independent audit early on. Has the city done this? Or are they depending upon Parks employees for numbers such as the maintenance backlog? And are all parts of the Dept. doing their jobs effectively and efficiently?

If an outside audit has not been done and the city acted upon its results, then it shouldn't even be on any ballot.

Secondly, can someone tell me if Parks employees will still be city employees as far as benefits like healthcare and retirement are concerned? If this is correct, then the MPD really sounds like a scam to get around existing rules.

m-t-e

Posted Thu, Jun 5, 11:40 a.m. Inappropriate

The City Neighborhood Council last fall asked for an audit of the Parks Department, and that request has been ignored.

The Parks Dept has NEVER been fully audited by an outside auditor (an "internal" auditor was let go in 2008).

We already are at the top nationally for park employees per capita and parks funding per capita, and have dozens of employees making over $100K per year. Yes the department cuts workers on-the-ground that do the maintenance and upkeep work.

The $267M "backlog" is questionable, with many projects already funded or are far less than critical in nature. And the hand-picked "citizens commission" went to the public to identify MORE items to fatten up the needs from Parks. It is unclear what the additional funding is for in the general legislation being offered as we would with a levy.

And just last year Councilmember Bagshaw and the Parks department paid out over $7M for a "public/private partnership" at Magnusson Park that went belly-up. A sweetheart deal concocted by our highly paid parks professionals.

We all love our parks and their programs, but real accountability and oversight has been lax and now we are looking for far more funding capability without understanding what we are paying for...

Posted Thu, Jun 5, 9:29 a.m. Inappropriate

m-t-e,
Audits: I believe the last internal audit was 6 yrs ago.... there has been NO external audit (financial or performance, both of which SHOULD have been done at the beginning of the process)
Employees: According to the companion piece, all work for Parks will be done by City employees.

Posted Thu, Jun 5, 10:40 a.m. Inappropriate

So what is the new taxing authority funding if not labor? Is it reimbursing the city for labor expenses? Or is it just doing an end run around tax limits and allowing Seattle to continue to keep taxing its citizens for park operations? Where does the revenue generated by the athletic fields and the Zoo go - to the park district, or does some of it go to the city to offset the cost of labor that it is providing?

This seems pretty opaque and there are a lot of questions that they don't seem to want to answer.

talisker

Posted Thu, Jun 5, 9:51 a.m. Inappropriate

"voters should understand what would actually happen if the MPD is approved"...... the legal document (Interlocal Agreement) that the mayor has signed, that the attorney's office references, allows the Councilmembers, sitting as the MPD Board, to change or even terminate all the operational details, that are missing in the proposed creation of this taxing district. All the promises regarding oversight, regarding supplantation of general funds money, regarding citizen input, etc. could be nullified by the MPD Board or the Mayor just by giving 180 days' notice (see item 6.1 of the ILA). So, according to the proposed documents, all rules for governance (promises) could be nullified before the City could even begin collecting the new tax. Opponents believe that the basic rules for governance should be as permanent as the MPD itself which lasts forever (forever, unless City Hall decides it has surplus funds and doesn't want this funding source...and how likely is that?)

Posted Thu, Jun 5, 10:03 a.m. Inappropriate

This is a real win for good-government advocates who despaired at the opacity & incompleteness of the City's proposed ballot language and explanatory note. Some voters may choose to support a Metropolitan Parks District for Seattle, but at least they will be clear that this is a separate new municipal corporation (the City of Seattle is itself a municipal corporation) with its own taxing authority to raise taxes independent of the City of Seattle's levy lid. Not only does the ballot measure as enacted by City Council double the amount of revenue to Parks over the existing levy which expires 12/31/2014, it does so outside of the City's taxing capacity.

Does anyone think that the "vacuum" created by migrating the current levy to this new entity, the Metropolitan Parks District (AKA the "Seattle Park District") will result in a lowering of the City of Seattle portion of their property taxes by the amount they've been paying for the existing levy?

Posted Thu, Jun 5, 10:21 a.m. Inappropriate

I still have yet to hear from anyone how we can be guaranteed that this won't result in the amount of parks funds in the general budget going to $0 eventually. Is that because we in fact have no iron-clad guarantee?

Posted Thu, Jun 5, 11:43 a.m. Inappropriate

come on, Benjamin. swallow the Kool-Aid. We are protected by the ILA! and as everyone knows, what is legislated stays that way permanently...

Posted Thu, Jun 5, 11:48 a.m. Inappropriate

Bagshaw added, "You don't want voters to be confused."

Perhaps Councilmember Bagshaw, who has also asserted that this whole deal has been thoroughly vetted from a legal stand point, will allow the hundreds of redacted pages of discussion about the MPD with the legal department to be made public.

Or would that confuse the voters?

Posted Thu, Jun 5, 12:59 p.m. Inappropriate

I think I can answer some of the questions posed above:

1. I do not doubt the intentions of the City to follow the provisions of the Interlocal Agreement (ILA). However, since the Park District doesn’t exist yet, the ILA cannot actually be executed until some time after the primary election. And it will be subject to changes before execution because it needs to go through more review at the City Council and the new District (the same nine individuals!). I do not think the Mayor can bind the City at this time, but I’ll let other lawyers argue about that.

The bigger concern for me about the ILA is it is subject to change at any time, upon notice by either the District or the City. Remember, the District is governed by the nine members of the council sitting ex officio--they have no "checks and balances" by either the Mayor or the voters.

Moreover, the specific spending allocations promised by the City only go out five years. After that, everything is subject to *recommendations* by a citizens committee with *decision authority* solely by the council sitting as the District’s board of commissioner. In addition to how the revenue is spent, those decisions include whether to continue and how much to raise (or lower) the property tax.

2. If you look at the contributors to the Yes campaign, you will find both the Zoo and the Aquarium as significant donors. The District’s five year plan (Council Bill 118056, Ex. A) gives a million *per year* to the Aquarium and a couple million to the Zoo. It also allocates over $7,000,000 in the last two years for maintenance of the new waterfront park.

3. I have done extensive digging for audits of the Seattle Parks Department. I cannot find any comprehensive outside audit at either the City Auditor’s site or at the State Auditor’s page. I believe south_downtown’s comment is accurate.

4. Current funding: The City promises not to reduce funding for Parks. In fact, the Charter requires “ten percent of the gross receipts of the City from all fines, penalties and licenses” to be allocated to Parks. Article XI, Section 3. I have not compared the money generated from that source to the overall Parks allocation in the City Budget.

5. City Parks Department employees: The arrangement envisioned by the City is that the District would just be a source of revenue, and the current Parks Dept and all its employees would be retained on contract (ILA) to manage the parks and other assets like community centers. If that is the case, Parks Dept employees would remain under current City employment, retirement, and other laws.

An important legal question does arise: RCW 35.61.135(1) starts, “All work ordered [by the District], the estimated cost of which is in excess of twenty thousand dollars, shall be let by contract and competitive bidding.” If applicable to the District, this law means the City could not automatically be chosen to operate all of the current Parks Dept functions. The City Attorneys Office claims the competitive bidding provision doesn’t apply because the ILA is covered by the Interlocal Cooperation Act; they argue that law allows governments to contract with each other without going to competitive bidding.

Public contracting is not an area of law I am very experienced in. However, a document created by Seattle's purchasing agent and available at the Municipal Research and Services Center of Washington (www.mrsc.org/subjects/pubworks/pb/interlocal_cooperatives.ppt), cites a series of state attorney general opinions and general legal principles, and appears to conclude that the District may *not* avoid competitive bidding.

Opinions by experience counsel on this last question would be greatly appreciated to further public dialogue concerning possible impacts of passage of Proposition One on August 5.

louploup

Posted Thu, Jun 5, 2 p.m. Inappropriate

Great post, thank you.

So if the city is still fully responsible for parks operations, the function of the new taxing authority is to act as a funding mechanism outside of the city budget and outside of direct voter oversight?

talisker

Posted Thu, Jun 5, 2:12 p.m. Inappropriate

And to get around reaching the ceiling beyond which the city cannot ask for more money via a real estate levy. Remember there is also a proposed real estate levy for universal preschool in our futures. Who knows there may be others, as well.

m-t-e

Posted Thu, Jun 5, 3:02 p.m. Inappropriate

You're welcome. Your statement is accurate.

The primary publicly stated purpose for creating a Seattle Park District is to increase the revenue stream for City Parks by setting up an MPD that is not subject to the City's levy lid.

In response to concerns about the lack of accountability of the legal structure, the (easily revokable) ILA provisions include an obligation by the District to levy taxes as agreed and to work closely with the City on Parks Dept budget, not to hire anyone except Parks Dpt (questionable in light of the competitive bidding issue mentioned above), and to have a Community Oversight Committee to "advise" the City and District.

I think everyone who wants to learn more about this deal should read the ILA. It's available at Clerk's website: clerk.seattle.gov/~public/CBOR1.htm and pull up Ordinance 124468.

louploup

Posted Thu, Jun 5, 4:53 p.m. Inappropriate

And I'd like to clarify "this law means the City could not automatically be chosen to operate all of the current Parks Dept functions."

It should say, "this law (RCW 35.61.135(1)) means the City can not be selected in advance by the District to provide services in exchange for receiving revenue raised by the District; the District would have to put purchase of those services out for competitive bid."

louploup

Posted Sat, Jun 7, 9:45 a.m. Inappropriate

Thank you Mr Thaler and Mr. Fox.

kieth

Posted Sat, Jun 7, 1:37 p.m. Inappropriate

Another question. Does anyone know if the Grand Waterfront Park would come under the Parks Dept. I seem to remember that - as envisioned - it would soak up beaucoup maintenance dollars.

m-t-e

Posted Sat, Jun 7, 10:51 p.m. Inappropriate

The funding plan adopted by the Council with the ordinance approving the Interlocal Agreement (ILA) in advance of the August election is here: clerk.seattle.gov/~ordpics/118056b.pdf

Maintenance of the waterfront park is listed as about $3.8 million/year for 2019 and 2020. Total $7,654,269. Presumably that amount would continue (or increase) indefinitely.

louploup

Posted Mon, Jun 9, 11:55 a.m. Inappropriate

Thanks. Very informative discussion.

One question. Who in their right mind would vote for this open-ended proposition?

Lily32

Posted Mon, Jun 9, 5:12 p.m. Inappropriate

Answer: Low information primary voters. "Parks" by itself is a winner and that's what proponents are counting on.

Please get the word out.

louploup

Posted Thu, Jun 12, 6:41 a.m. Inappropriate

"Are we giving up too much when we upzone areas of the city, such as South Lake Union, without asking anything from developers?" This was a question asked of a consultant to the Parks Department in this video: http://youtu.be/XBYTChvfzSE

Oxman

Posted Fri, Jun 13, 1:53 p.m. Inappropriate

The sound at that video clip is not good. The full session is here:
http://www.seattlechannel.org/videos/video.asp?ID=5011360&file;=1

louploup

Posted Sat, Jun 14, 12:13 p.m. Inappropriate

On principle, using property taxes to fund parks makes sense, in that adjacent property values benefit from well-maintained and broadly used parks. A growing population and increased density argue for park expansion. It can be argued that both the Aquarium and the Zoo have languished - if we want to continue as a world-class destination city, we need world-class destinations.

Perhaps some of the freed-up property taxing authority could be utilized to help find housing alternatives for the homeless currently camping in our parks.

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