The politics of the parks levy

Why didn't the Seattle mayor and the City Council get together on Proposition 2? Welcome to the politics of special levies and the artful shaping of each year's big ask.
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Why didn't the Seattle mayor and the City Council get together on Proposition 2? Welcome to the politics of special levies and the artful shaping of each year's big ask.

One of the more curious political stories of this election is the Seattle Pro Parks levy, Proposition 2. The measure would raise $146 million over the next six years, spreading the money over 54 parks and some cultural facilities. The twist is that Mayor Greg Nickels opposes Prop 2, while the City Council and some parks advocates are pushing it. Why the discord?

Part of the answer is simple politics. The City Council wanted to prove it could do something big in defiance of the mayor, who has spent the years since he was elected in 2001 bullying the council. Better organized under council President Richard Conlin, a possible challenger to Nickels in 2009, the council can now do things like this. For his part, Nickels will want to finally oppose a tax increase, and especially this kind, of taking an expired levy and extending it, which is something of a violation of taxpayer trust. Nickels has a reputation for being a tax-hugger. So both the council and the mayor get to prove something.

This is one terrible way to run a railroad. For one thing, it was done in great haste. Secondly, as new Parks Superintendent Tim Gallagher points out, his department could not participate in any of the planning for the levy. As a result, the levy is full of round numbers, scattering small amounts to virtually every neighborhood. A typical entry: "Roxhill Park: $450,000 to improve playground safety."

The real planning is coming from assorted parks and neighborhood activists and the Parks Foundation, plus some prominent players like the Arboretum, the Seattle Art Museum (Volunteer Park), and Langston Hughes Performing Arts Center. There is a little strategy to be sensed amid all the holiday gifts: covering reservoirs and putting parks on top of them, for instance; synthetic turf for athletic fields; and skateboard facilities.

Another political factor is that the parks levy interrupted the carefully arranged queue for these special levies. The city is obviously addicted to them, as a way to fund major maintenance costs outside the regular budget, leaving more room for personnel and social services and higher pay for police. They are carefully arranged so as to include some mom-and-apple-pie levies (the Pike Place Market, for instance) along with the harder-to-swallow ones (low-income housing). This year, with a large Democratic turnout for a presidential race, there was a juicy opportunity to pass some big levies. Nickels put most of his eggs in the Sound Transit basket for this year, steering Seattle Center off the ballot and trying to keep the parks levy off as well.

One irony in all this comes from the great unforeseen event, the crashing economy. It's easy to imagine Nickels getting a rude comeuppance. Sound Transit, which Nickels strongarmed onto the ballot this year, is likely to fail. The Market levy is coming under criticism as an obvious example of the city practice of letting things run down so you can pass the buck to the taxpayers in a sentimental campaign, so it, too, might fail. (Same criticism applies to parks, of course.) The one that might pass is the least-well-considered but at least one that promises a small improvement in a neighborhood near every taxpayer.

Presumably, the red-faced mayor will accept the $146 million.


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