By Tracy Record
West Seattle Blog editor
A month and a half after Mayor Murray came to Hiawatha Community Center to announce the proposal to create a Park District to raise extra money for Seattle Parks and Recreation in the years ahead, it’s ballot-bound.
That’s because, during their meeting this afternoon (archived Seattle Channel video above), the City Council voted unanimously (8-0, with West Seattle-residing Councilmember Tom Rasmussen absent) to send it to voters.
This will replace – now and into the future – the more-recent pattern of sending ballot measures to voters every few years, levy or bond, to raise extra money for Parks. Most recent one was the five-year Parks and Green Spaces Levy approved in 2008. It was set to raise $146 million over six years, ending this year. Before that, the Pro Parks Levy approved by voters in 2000 raised $198 million over eight years.
But this time around, city leaders decided to go for a permanent way to raise extra money, instead of a fixed-term levy. The Park District would be accountable to the City Council, sitting as its board, but would have its own taxing authority. As laid out in this memo, councilmembers want the Park District to raise about $48 million a year for the first six years, 11 percent less than the $54 million the mayor had suggested. So what about the money Parks gets from the city budget now? According to the mayor’s website: “The City will continue to use City revenues to fund Parks and will continue to allocate a minimum of $89 million per year of General Fund revenues (2014 level of funding) to support Parks’ services and facilities unless the City Council by a three-fourths vote determines that a natural disaster or exigent economic circumstances prevent the Council from maintaining this level of General Fund support.”
Meantime, here’s the bill councilmembers passed to ask voters whether they will approve creation of the Park District.
In public comment before the vote, they heard from several critics who expressed concerns about accountability and about the fact that unlike the levies, citizens won’t be voting on how much they will be taxed – they will be instead voting to give the Park District taxing authority. One critic suggested few citizens had heard about this and accused the council of being “in an insulated bubble.”
Councilmembers disagreed with that. They also said an “interlocal agreement” between the city and the proposed district – set up in a second bill they passed today – would increase accountability.
Councilmember Sally Bagshaw, who chairs the Parks and Neighborhoods Committee, said it would help solve the problem of Parks’ huge unfunded maintenance backlog, estimated at more than $260 million, because 60 percent of the money raised would be spent on that. She said that over three years of trying to figure out what’s next for Parks funding, she had looked at and listened to thousands of comments.
Councilmembers Nick Licata and Kshama Sawant both acknowledged the Park District proposal wasn’t perfect, but considered it to be acceptable.
Councilmember Sally Clark described it as a tool to be used “without the council going all evil and using it for unintended purposes.”
Mayor Murray said in his announcement last month that the Park District would be able to tax up to 75 cents per $1,000 assessed value. The slightly larger funding package he was supporting at the time would have used about 42 cents of that authority, so the one the council is supporting would be a few cents less than that. After today’s council vote, he issued a statement saying the principles of his proposal “remain intact.” The mayor’s website has Q/A with more details on how the district would work.
If you’re a Seattle voter, you will be part of the final decision in the August 5th election.