Money misery: Seattle Parks wants you to know what’s at stake

By Tracy Record
West Seattle Blog editor

Seattle Parks Finance Director Carol Everson would have rather been almost anywhere else than in front of the Parks Board last night downtown, presenting a grim look ahead.

“I wish I weren’t here talking about this,” she grimaced from the podium at one point.

But talking is essential – not just to plan ahead for possible midyear cuts this year and all-but-certain cuts for the next two years, but to make sure you understand what Parks is facing, and what might eventually be requested to minimize the misery – maybe even the formation of a Metropolitan Park District (explained here) taxing authority.

Before the board meeting, we met briefly with the West Seattleites who are chair and vice chair of the board, Jackie Ramels and Neal Adams, and Superintendent Tim Gallagher.

Their message: If you care about city park services, please listen up and pay attention, because whatever is done to bridge the budget gap, it will affect the services delivered to you. And that was hammered home again during Everson’s briefing.

Part of the problem is good news with an underside of bad news.

That good news is the fact that Seattle voters have said “yes” to park levies, time and time again.

The bad news – that means new money for new park facilities and features, but no new money to run and take care of them, and the department already has a huge backlog – at the pace it gets money (from a section of the budget called the Cumulative Reserve Subfund) for maintenance, Everson told the board, it would take 20 years to catch up on just what’s on the list now, $200 million in needs, and $20 million per biennium coming in from that subfund.

Add to that the Parks and Green Spaces Levy projects that have been and are being built – and fast, since the department “frontloaded” levy work last year, moving quickly to build projects in a positive bidding climate – and Everson said those additions alone will require more than $2 million extra for operations and maintenance: “The list just keeps getting longer.” Even programs that include heavy volunteer involvement, like the Green Seattle Partnership for forest restoration – the subject of a glowing presentation just before the budget briefing – come with an operations/maintenance cost; for GSP, that’s projected at more than $1 million/year.

Superintendent Gallagher and deputy superintendent Christopher Williams warned that this means that the upcoming review of the levy-funded Opportunity Fund proposals – with at least 150 to consider – inevitably will include consideration of how maintenance-intensive the proposed projects are. And if the budget gloom doesn’t lift, they added, it could mean a delay in construction of some projects further down the line – though they acknowledged to us after the meeting, that would be a policy requiring elected leaders’ buy-in.

But we’re getting ahead of the main story. Everson kicked off her presentation with context: The city’s $10 million general-fund shortfall this year, $50 million projected in 2011-2012. That’s the budget section from which Parks derives two-thirds of its money, she noted – for this year, $84 million of a $130 million operating budget.

From there, the crystal ball gets murky, she said. Right now, city budget bosses are revising their forecast, and departments are waiting to see if it will be “better or worse,” and whether they will be required to take midyear cuts. If so, they could be dramatic and immediate, according to Everson, because the nature of Parks’ business – and our climate – means higher summertime spending, less to cut from later in the year.

She pointed to an “anticipated budget-drivers table” for 2011-2012. If the department gets the same amount of money from the city General Fund, that still will leave Parks short, let alone if their GF allocation is cut – holding the line would mean a cut next year of up to $6 million, a five percent GF reduction would mean $4 million more.

And some other money sources are vanishing, such as the last dollars from the Pro Parks Levy. Meantime, operations/maintenance for new parks/facilities isn’t the only category that’ll need more money – a 2 percent salary increase for Parks workers will cost $1.4 million next year for starters. Some facilities that have been closed for construction, like Langston Hughes Performing Arts Center, will reopen, requiring operating expenses to resume. Wading pools that were closed last year will reopen this year.

Result of all that: They are working with scenarios to see how Parks would deal with having to cut $10 million – which, Everson said, would include the equivalent of 120 full-time employees. “That would be truly significant for us,” she summarized.

Both in her presentation, and in the conversation we had before the meeting with Gallagher, Ramels and Adams, it was stressed that Parks already has cut “the fat,” with a $5 million reduction this year. Gallagher says even the mayor has pointed out that Parks is the only department with fewer managers now than it had in 2002 – even though, he notes, in that time, because of levies, the city has added 130 new acres of parkland, 42 new parks, and a quarter-million square feet of community-center space.

So what are they doing to brace for the possibility – the likelihood – of budget-slashing?

“Reductions of this magnitude will have service-level magnitude,” warned Everson, mentioning “a long list of possibilities” to total the aforementioned possibility of $10 million/120 full-time-equivalent in cuts. “There are facilities that (would be) closed” – maybe permanently, or, she suggested, maybe “rolling closures.” Coming into play here, a phrase we’ve heard a lot in some preliminary budget shots across the bow, even before last night’s briefing – “getting out of certain lines of business.” (A “line of business” would mean a type of service Parks provides, like aquatics, Environmental Learning Centers, etc.) A “gap analysis” also was mentioned, analyzing Parks facilities to see if there are areas where, for example, two community centers overlap, enabling evaluation of whether both are really needed.

What would be off the table, or close to it? The services listed as those “we need to protect” included “open, free parks; community centers; late-night programs; services to low-income people.” To the latter point, while one option listed as a way to cope with a budget gap was to “substantially raise fees and charges,” board chair Ramels said that would be infeasible. “So we really only have two options,” she said – major cuts, and/or what Everson declared as “the third way” – “Find a new source of dedicated revenue.”

That, in Ramels’ view, could open the door to considering creation of a Metropolitan Park District. (For example, that’s how Tacoma runs its parks.) She said it was discussed briefly in the late ’90s, giving way instead to the now-expired Prop Parks Levy. The board is requesting a briefing on the legalities and procedures involved in seeking an MPD, possibly from city attorney Pete Holmes, for a future meeting.

In the meantime, superintendent Gallagher said he’s asked his team to develop four more budget-cut scenarios, in addition to the one that already has been presented (again, it has not been released publicly). He sought to deflect rumors that have been circulating already regarding what’s most likely to be on the chopping block: “Whatever rumor mill anyone hears about ‘(a particular) facility is going to close’ is just a rumor,” he insisted, adding that by the time all possible scenarios are drawn up, “everybody in every facility in every sort of line of business will be on some sort of reduction list – including me. We have to look at a lot of options.”

That review, he stressed, has been under way since December 2007, not long after he took over Parks; at that time, he noted, he’d “asked everyone for a 10 percent budget reduction .. We have been able to weather the storm (so far) because we have made a lot of efficiency and structural changes in the past few years that have saved money. But we’re now at the point where there’s not much left (to cut).”

All the same, they may have to pick up the ax soon, with the possibility of a midyear cut to get 2010 in balance – “If we had to cut (more than a million dollars) midyear,” said deputy superintendent Williams, “we could experience big cuts this summer.”

Here’s the timeline that was explained:

They expect to find out in early April if immediate cuts are required; they’d have to tell the mayor by mid-April what they would cut. Then by early May, they’d find out the “reduction target” for 2011-2012, and Parks would have to bring the city Budget Office a proposal by May 17 for reaching that target. About a month later, by mid-June, they would find out if the Budget Office would approve or reject that proposal. July 9, their budget would have to be turned into the mayor, who would review it during July and August, with decisions by the end of August, a budget speech in September, City Council changes in October, and a final budget adopted before Thanksgiving.

The mayor already knows things are looking ugly, of course, Everson said. So, asked board member John Barber, if you aren’t ordered to make midyear cuts, “when do you put on the brakes?”

Everson’s reply: Some open jobs already are being left open, with the anticipation that they’ll have internal candidates if and when other jobs have to be cut.

Board member Diana Kincaid asked if levy money could be changed from capital to maintenance. Everson’s reply: That was discussed with the Parks and Green Spaces Levy Oversight Committee when they got a budget briefing last Monday, but, Everson said, “there are legal restrictions – you can’t turn the levy upside down.” However, they could “sequence” the building program. (And that’s where Gallagher jumped in to say, “One of the unintended consequences is the possibility any levy project that could result in new maintenance might be put on hold – they would not go out to bid. All these considerations are not pleasant.”)

Then the big question, from vice chair Adams: “How does the public weigh in?”

Everson observed that the process typically has not included public comment “until after the mayor proposes his budget at the end of September. Given the current situation, that doesn’t really seem adequate, but we don’t have a precedent to go on.”

Gallagher warned, “If we come up with some kind of public process about what kind of line of business to get out of, it’ll turn into a case of who can organize the biggest turnout. We are looking for a way to get public input on this that is really something we could use.”

The Parks Board itself, of course, is also a public sounding board of sorts, since its members are all volunteers. They’ll have a meeting entirely devoted to budget issues in May. “We will know a lot by then,” Everson affirmed.

Even before that, Ramels asked that the April meeting include time to discuss “where do we go now as a board” in reviewing proposals and participating in the process. The board meets the second and fourth Thursdays of each month, so if this topic interests you, you’ll want to mark your calendar for future meetings, starting with April 8th.

23 Replies to "Money misery: Seattle Parks wants you to know what's at stake"

  • picot March 26, 2010 (12:26 pm)

    Thanks for reporting this! I have a feeling we won’t know how much is at stake until it’s already gone. I know many of the Park Dept. employees are such hard working stewards. They create such an enormous benefit to our city. Our kids need places where they can be in nature even if it’s in a small urban park. We need to assert our support. Perhaps turning over some of the huge swaths of turf to urban food production would be a win for many in the community. We could use this crisis as a stepping off point for permaculture installations.

  • yumpears March 26, 2010 (12:39 pm)

    There’s a “tumor” in there that should be “rumor”.

    • WSB March 26, 2010 (12:41 pm)

      Fixed it, thanks, got an e-mail report several minutes ago. Of course, rumors can be malignant …

  • Arbor Heights Mom March 26, 2010 (12:49 pm)

    Thanks for the story, this is awful and our fabulous parks in West Seattle are part of why we live here. For heaven’s sake, I paid an insane amount in car tabs for the monorail, I’d happily pay that levy for parks. Or how about a hotel tax?

  • Dave Gould March 26, 2010 (1:02 pm)

    Why isn’t the city asking city staff to fore go cost of living increases? Others of us are having to do that. How does it make sense to bring new parks on line without requisite operating funds dedicated to these parks? What has happened to the money set aside for the purchase of land for new parks? If new parks do not have operational funds and positions are having to be cut due to the lack of revenue, why isn’t Parks asking for a re-allocation of new parks money be spent on current operational needs? Voters approved money for purchase of new land for Parks but we were not in the fiscal fix we are in now. This is schizophrenic.

  • Shawn Frisbee March 26, 2010 (1:47 pm)

    The new parks levy was passed in November of 2008 as we were heading into the recession. My question is why, when parks were having trouble maintaining the facilities they have, was a levy proposed to add more facilities to their already taxed maintenance department? Why weren’t the voters informed that parks were struggling to maintain the existing facilities and maybe our tax dollars needed to be funnelled to this cause not adding more facilities that can’t be maintained???? Why isn’t superintendent Gallagher doing more to support the one revenue producing department of parks: golf? In fact he’s on the record as saying he dislikes golf. That’s a funny attitude to take toward the one shining area of your entire department. I think if the media took a hard look at the management of parks, and Mr. Gallagher in particular, they would find a very inefficient and mismanaged operation. Just one man’s opinion.

  • drb March 26, 2010 (2:31 pm)

    Are city workers getting a cost of living increase this year? Depends on the city worker I would imagine..those at the lower levels probably need a cost of living wage just to keep up with everyday living expenses. Anyway..what about charging for parking stalls in the parks that have them? Vancouver B.C. has done this for years. And if you can’t afford to pay for parking take the bus or walk and you don’t need to pay for parking..
    Just a might help.

  • Jim Clark March 26, 2010 (2:38 pm)

    They don’t think about fat in the budget or target areas where they could be way more efficient. They always just put a levy up for vote. I for one am very tired of government officials pleading for more money so they don’t have to make hard decisions and prioritize budgets. If the parks had a performance audit I bet there would be significant wast found.

  • Mags March 26, 2010 (3:10 pm)

    Interesting article. It sounds like Parks is working hard to keep their programs going despite budget constraints. Just like the library, police, etc. Dave Gould-City employees received cost of living adjustment this year based on an old contract however they are not getting 10 days of pay since they are furloughed. I saw McGinn talk about budget concerns recently and he did say he wants more layoffs which will translate into even more cutbacks.

  • Kayzel March 26, 2010 (3:18 pm)

    Bad news, but well told. Excellent reporting. Thanks.

  • texas March 26, 2010 (4:19 pm)

    I thought the tumor was intentional ;-)

    Wasn’t McGinn one of the primary authors of the parks levy; at least that’s how he was promoting himself in his mayoral campaign. Maybe someone should ask him why there wasn’t any maint or ops money included.

  • acemotel March 26, 2010 (5:47 pm)

    since McGinn was one of the primary authors of the parks levy, as he was promoting himself during the campaign, someone should ask him why maint and ops were not included in levy.

  • Rick March 26, 2010 (7:04 pm)

    Kind of similar to what the city claims what will happen when budgets are stressed. (almost always)Big cuts in fire,police,vital services. As Jim Clark stated,cutting fat and increasing efficiency are rarely threatened.Kinda like giving a kid 5 bucks to run to the store to pick up a gallon of milk and he can spend the rest on candy. He comes back with a pint of milk and the rest spent on candy so instead of sending him back to make it right we give him another 5 bucks.

  • WSB March 27, 2010 (2:23 am)

    Someone tried to post the entire text of another news site’s story in this comment thread. Please note, that is against our rules. We respect copyright and do not post others’ work, either written or photography – you are welcome to link to something, though, so if there is an article or photo you want to call to people’s attention, please include the direct link in your comment, as well as your own short explanation of why the link is relevant. Thanks! – Tracy

  • JumboJim March 27, 2010 (1:29 pm)

    I know a Parks Dept. employee who is very afraid she will lose her job after about 17-18 years with the city. Of course that would mean she would not get any pension, but of course she is mostly concerned with keeping her job – the daily bread has got to come first!

    Sad to hear that all of the remaining environmental learning centers are likely to be shut. That means no visitor center at Discovery Park and others like it.

  • anonyme March 27, 2010 (4:55 pm)

    I heard from a City ‘insider’ that the Parks budget has been slashed to the bone while SDOT has actually added a LOT of middle and senior management positions. Would not surprise me; SDOT has got to be one of the most inefficient bureaucratic departments in our state. How many millions have gone down the DOT toilet?

  • Barbara March 27, 2010 (8:56 pm)

    Tracy, please post this on the Whitecenternow as it is relevant to the annexation issue – thank you.

  • Paul Wilkinson, Director of Golf March 29, 2010 (10:37 am)

    I’d like to point out that Seattle Parks is currently moving ahead with the 2009 Golf Master Plan which was Tim Gallagher’s idea. In the coming five years, we expect to see significant improvements to the Seattle golf facilities starting with a driving range at West Seattle. The driving range is in the planning and design stage right now. Golf isn’t being ignored. The most recent evidence is the new turf and paint at the Interbay facility which just reopened last week. The public should visit it today. The golf operating model is working well. Not only does golf pay its own maintenance and operating costs, it returns a profit to the park operating fund.
    Tim Gallagher’s decision to invest in golf facilities which are obviously run down yet still run well is very sound management.

  • Dave March 29, 2010 (6:26 pm)

    “Pay to play,” right Paul? ;)

    Since when is environmental learning a “line of business?”

    DF, CoCA

  • Dave March 29, 2010 (6:32 pm)

    “Pay to play,” right Paul?;)

    Since when is Environmental Learning a “line of business?” How about free art at Carkeek,

    Thanks for the blog & the article!

  • Stewart Wechsler April 6, 2010 (9:48 pm)

    The lodge building at Camp Long Environmental Learning Center is now going through a $1 million remodel from money from the last parks levy. Now there is talk of closing the environmental learning centers including Camp Long (where I have led nature programs on and off since 2000). I wouldn’t want to be in one of the positions making the decisions of how to make the cuts and I don’t know that I have the answers as to how to deal with the budget shortfall, but it does seem a bit crazy to cut the program after putting that money into the building. I thought the re-model money was intended to improve the facility as an environmental learning center. We could have kept the programs going for years with the building as it was and with that money.

  • Constance Sidles April 7, 2010 (4:21 am)

    Years ago, Norm Rice had great success holding a series of education summits around town to find out what people thought about public education and the role of city government. He made it clear that he was open to new ideas.

    Out of those summits came a levy that easily passed and that provided support services in schools: high school health clinics were one such idea. More important, in my opinion, was the renewed commitment of the city to work cooperatively and intelligently with the Seattle School District.

    I know process sometimes gets a bad name here in Seattle, but it IS how we like to do things. Perhaps Tim Gallagher should try to put together a similar process for parks. Maybe he could invite some of the environmental groups to participate as well, in which case, we might all cooperate on two fronts: We might decide, as a people, what really matters to us in the way of parks services; and we might, also working together, figure out how to synergize services to reduce duplication of effort and maximize service delivery.

    If we could do this successfully, then two good things might come out of it: Any new taxing authority and/or tax would already have grassroots support (this is what Mr. Rice discovered); and we would help streamline services to minimize waste. A “line of business” that the parks no longer wanted to administer perhaps could be taken up by an NGO that already does it, and vice versa.

  • V Murray April 19, 2010 (3:08 pm)

    Why is it always public services that are cut? Why not administrative costs? Do the Senators, Representatives, Governor and other elected State officials really need all the extra employees (and drivers) they have hired for their offices since the last election? Union workers have contracts that should be renegotiated during a heavy recession like this one. Seniors on Social Security get no cost of living raise for the next 2 years. Why should there be raises for workers and elected officials who are paid from shrinking tax dollars.? Treating all state workers alike is only fair.

Sorry, comment time is over.