By Tracy Record
West Seattle Blog editor
When the August 5th ballot arrives in your mailbox next week, it will include one major issue for you to decide: How will the City of Seattle raise extra money for its park system from here on out?
In recent years, the city has done that by taking a levy/bond measure to the public every so often. The most recent one was the 2008 Parks and Green Spaces Levy, which expires this year.
But what the city’s asking you to approve this time has no expiration date. If you approve Seattle Proposition 1, you’ll be voting to support creation of a permanent Park District with taxing authority – no further votes needed.
The Admiral Neighborhood Association spent most of its July meeting on a mini-forum about Proposition 1 – with some pointed questions, and responses.
Speaking for the Park District measure, City Councilmember Tom Rasmussen and former Parks Board member Terry Holme, who also appeared when the Delridge District Council had its own mini-forum in May (here’s our coverage with video). Speaking against it, Don Harper from Our Parks Forever.
Rasmussen began by noting that while he chairs the Transportation Committee now, he chaired the Parks Committee when the 2008 levy campaign was under way. He contended that even if the Park District is created, “the parks will still be Seattle parks, you’ll still have the same kind of control, it’s simply a way of raising funds specifically to be used for the Parks department.” And he pointed out that the Council had created a Transportation Benefit District a few years ago, in the same vein. “In order to not be so limited, we are needing to create special taxing districts for what we used to be able to pay for out of our regular city budget.”
Holme, who’s been on the Parks Board for nine years, said the taxing rate envisioned for the Park District is only slightly higher than the current levy – $4 more if you have a house with a $400,000 valuation. He also was on the committee that reviewed options for finding extra funding once Parks and Green Spaces expired – the Legacy Committee – and said its members preferred creating the Park District instead of sending voters another levy.
According to Holme, every six years, a citizen committee will review the progress and set priorities for the years ahead, as set up in the “interlocal agreement” that is proposed as part of this (explained in the FAQ on Mayor Murray’s webpage about the proposal). That would ensure citizen participation and accountability, he contended.
Harper then gave his introduction, including his background with the Queen Anne Community Council, whose parks committee he chairs, and time on the city’s Levy Oversight Committee.
Levies are preferable, he said, because “you get to vote on levies – you get to look at the projects you’re getting … they are named projects ..there’ll be a dollar number assigned to them … so when you vote for them, you now you’re going to get them. and you’re part of the process of what’s going to go into them.” Voting on a levy, he suggested, also represents your review/opinion of how the city handled your money last time around.
Though Park District supporters are circulating a list of priority projects, Harper said, that’s not what voters are voting on – instead, he said, they’re voting for the district name, its boundaries (the Seattle city limits), who’s going to be on its board (the Seattle City Council), and its potential tax rate, which would raise about $100 million a year. “I don’t see why the council and mayor are so hellbent on taking away your right to vote,” Harper said. Observing that supporters have emphasized that a major plan for the first six years is to rustle up money for park maintenance, he said, “When Parks asked for more maintenance money, who didn’t give it to them? The city council and the mayor.” He wrapped up by saying it’s a matter of control – if you don’t mind just handing over some money from hereon out, this measure is fine, but “if you want to maintain some control,” creating a new taxing district is not the way to do that.
After both sides’ opening statements, ANA president David Whiting opened the discussion to Q/A.
Rasmussen stressed that creating a Park District would guarantee a permanent source of extra park funding, contending it’s not a given that the council would just keep sending levies to voters instead. He said the Parks and Green Spaces Levy almost didn’t happen, that its predecessor was expiring and that then-Mayor Greg Nickels didn’t want another park levy “so we almost didn’t have one.” (Here’s our coverage from 2008, when the council sent the levy to voters though the mayor had wanted to delay it at least two years.)
He also urged faith in the “interlocal agreement” that will govern how the money is spent, saying the city has many of them already. Ultimately, he said, councilmembers will be accountable, and if citizens don’t like the decisions they make with the Park District (or anything else), “vote us out of office.”
Harper at that point called attention to how other park districts are run, with their own elected boards – Tacoma, for example. He said he’s concerned that “the Council has so much else to worry about, how are they going to be able to concentrate on parks?” He also voiced concern that the only “named projects” are “landbanked sites” and Woodland Park Zoo. And then he said he has confidence that city leaders have “a Plan B if this gets voted down – there WILL be a levy, we WILL move forward, and we’ll move forward with our park system.”
Regarding concerns that somehow this will pave the way for city budget money that used to go toward parks instead getting “supplanted,” moved to something else, Holme pointed to the Intralocal Agreement, which will stipulate that Parks funding in the budget’s General Fund remains at least at its current level, $89 million.
Other questions/concerns voiced by ANA attendees included whether the upcoming changes in the council’s makeup – with all but two members elected by district starting next year – would affect the way the councilmembers planned to manage the potential Park District. Holme said he felt confident that the “public process … baked into this” would work. And he reiterated that the first list of priorities for the money included “major maintenance,” unlike the Parks and Green Spaces Levy, which was tilted more toward acquisition.
Harper said he was bothered by the fact that the general-fund money for Parks isn’t enough to maintain them – “Where is the $135 million [annual budget] going?” He said that while “(Rasmussen) is a good guy, what happens when it’s a different councilmember different mayor – this is ‘forever’.” Perhaps the Park system should be audited, he suggested. “We’re rushing into this.”
Rasmussen then described the audit suggestion as “a typical anti-government kind of response.”
Toward the end of the discussion, Harper protested that he hadn’t had as much of a chance to answer questions as the two Park District supporters had; ANA members pointed out that the questions were asked more from a skeptical viewpoint, so his side was already represented.
ALSO AT ANA: Councilmember Rasmussen mentioned that the 47th/Admiral signal long sought by ANA should be built within a year; he was told that SDOT had promised to return with a design update in June but hadn’t contacted them yet, so he’ll check on it … The group celebrated its achievement of 501(c)3 tax-exempt status, long in the works … The concession sales at the 4th of July Kids’ Parade afterparty at Hamilton Viewpoint were hailed as a success again, with $1,000 raised after expenses, up from about two-thirds of that last year … ANA is working on a wintertime event – Santa Claus and more – details to come, but save the date, December 7th … No August meeting, as is the case for most community councils.