Seattle parks levy leads to unwise spending

As a result of the well-intended 2008 vote, Phinney Ridge, for example, could get one new park and upgrades to an existing park that was recently improved.
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With Green Lake and Woodland Park, does Phinney Ridge really need a new park?

As a result of the well-intended 2008 vote, Phinney Ridge, for example, could get one new park and upgrades to an existing park that was recently improved.

Sometimes good intentions lead to bad decisions and results that nobody thought about. Citizens of Seattle are generous with their tax dollars and routinely step up to fund services that enhance our quality of life and help those less fortunate.

Think about what we fund over and above normal taxes: The Housing Levy, the Families and Education Levy, the Parks Levy, the Fire Levy, Bridging the Gap, two separate levies for school construction and teachers, and a levy to rehabilitate the aging infrastructure of Pike Place Market. We also voted for Sound Transit funding and county parks.

There are other levies on the horizon — for Seattle Center, possibly for a transportation improvement district, for light rail from Ballard to West Seattle, and for the replacement of our aging seawall. It might be a good time to think about the number of facilities the city operates and how we pay for maintenance and operations. Looking at the long-term effect of the 2008 Parks Levy may help us think a bit deeper before plunging ahead with more commitments.

I confess I have voted for all but one levy on the ballot since I reached voting age. I did not vote for the 2008 parks levy. The levy amount is $146 million over six years, from 2009 through 2014. It will cost the owner of a $450,000 house $80.78 per year for the life of the levy.

My 'ꀜno'ꀝ vote was a hard one for me because I and my family use park facilities on a regular basis. But the 2008 levy is a prime example of good intentions leading to bad consequences. Having been part of the city's Downtown Parks Task Force five years ago, I learned about the management and operational challenges at the parks department. The department was strained at that time with the parks and facilities it operated; it can only be worse now.

The recent levy has created a situation where parks employees are meeting with various neighborhood groups asking where they'ꀙd like a new park, even though we'ꀙre having trouble taking care of what we have. The Phinney Ridge Community Council has been approached about coming up with ideas for new parks — even though the neighborhood already has a number of quality open spaces including the Woodland Park Zoo, Upper and Lower Woodland Park, and Greenlake.

The PRCC Board was told that the levy mandated $350,000 to be spent upgrading the park at North 59th Street and Phinney Avenue North. The park is next to the zoo and known as the 59th Street Park. Normally the extra money would be welcomed. Except this park has recently been upgraded with new play equipment and landscaping through a neighborhood matching-fund grant. The PRCC thought the money could better be spent elsewhere. Too bad that it can'ꀙt: The levy says the money goes there, and since the people voted for it, it can'ꀙt be changed.

So the council will try really hard to spend the money on the park — while the city struggles to keep community centers open. Does this make any sense?

Another case involves the University District, which the city believes is not served well by open space. The city'ꀙs analysis however, does not include the University of Washington campus as open space — even though it is public and used by residents.

The result of this strategy will likely be the development of a number of 'ꀜpocket parks.'ꀝ As I learned from my time on the Downtown Parks Task Force, these small parks are the hardest to manage and maintain. They often become magnets for graffiti and crime and the source of citizen complaints to parks and police. Resources will be drained to create often unused facilities at the expense of those that are widely used by families throughout the city.

I remember a summer program we developed nearly a decade ago at the Rainier Community Center. We opened up the swimming pool at night to give kids a positive activity — an alternative to hanging out on the streets. The first night we had over 100 kids show up — and it grew after that. Unfortunately, we didn'ꀙt have the funding to extend the program. But my point is this: Wouldn't this sort of thing be better than another pocket park?

The city's acting parks superintendent, Christopher Williams, understands these issues well. When I was in city government I worked with him on all of these initiatives. I know he'ꀙd like to see more resources put into management and programming because he understands how important they are to young people with limited choices. But he, like everyone else at Parks, must take care of what we have by using operational resources that never keep pace with the expansion of responsibility.

In fact, the city should look generally at how many facilities it operates and whether it makes sense to consolidate some facilities in order to provide for more service hours. Are we going to have a large number of facilities that are hardly ever open, or fewer that are open more often with more services? Co-locating city functions such as neighborhood service centers in community centers makes sense too; Ballard is a good example.

I realize there are preservation opportunities that we need to take advantage of before some sites are developed and we lose open space. This makes sense. However, having parks employees searching for a place — any place — to put a park is a waste of resources we cannot afford.

Parks, community centers, and libraries are heavily used throughout Seattle. For some kids, they represent the only opportunity to learn to swim or play basketball, or to take an art class. The summer programs they offer help parents who can'ꀙt afford to send their kids to more expensive camps. We also know that summer time is when poorer kids fall behind wealthier kids academically. Summer programs at parks can help turn that around by offering enrichment for kids who would otherwise be home alone while parents work.

It would be a shame if our generosity necessitated cutting back on programs so many people depend on. Resources are not infinite and we need to be smart about our choices, even when that means we sometimes have to say no.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Jordan Royer

Jordan Royer

Jordan Royer is the vice president for external affairs in the Seattle office of the Pacific Merchant Shipping Association.