Seattle Parks Board: Budget-cut update; Gallagher’s parting words

By Tracy Record
West Seattle Blog editor

Minutes before Seattle Parks‘ finance director told the Parks Board the midyear budget cut would be almost twice as big as she’d estimated, her former boss got up and shared his budget-crisis thoughts.

It’s not every day a high-ranking city official quits, and then returns to his ex-department shortly thereafter to offer advice as a private citizen.

But that’s exactly what ex-Parks Superintendent Tim Gallagher did last night, criticizing “elected officials” who “haven’t stepped forward to solve the problems we have today.”

So, he suggested, the Parks Board needs to step up and make sure its “advisory” role goes beyond his old job.

“The problem is, as we’ve talked about,” Gallagher continued, “how do you find a structural solution to develop longterm financial sustainability for the Parks system you have today – what does that look like? We know it’s something the voters are going to have to approve. It could (take many forms), but it has to be researched … we won’t know until city staff look at this and come up with conclusions.”

So, before the meeting ended, that is exactly what the Parks Board voted to do – research potential funding solutions. One board member originally proposed the resolution as moving toward a maintenance and operations levy, since those are the areas in which the department says it’s lacking funding – even as levies were approved in recent years allotting plenty for park construction and land acquisition. But the board wanted to keep their options open.

Back to what Gallagher said: “You can’t hide from the public … you have to engage them from the beginning; you have to involve them in the solution. … (And) being that you’re (an advisory council), I would urge you to advise the mayor and city council – advise them to get off the dime. … This has to be done quickly … now … to take to voters, otherwise we’re going to face major closures.”

What those major closures would be, we don’t yet know. Asked for hints at the end of the meeting, Carol Everson said, pleasantly enough, “I’ve told you what I’m allowed to tell you.” But there were plenty of warning signals in the otherwise even tone of her budget update. Her first, detailed briefing had lots of numbers (WSB coverage here) – this one had few, but the one it contained was dire enough:

The midyear budget cut request, she said, is 3% of the department’s general fund, so they’re being asked to cut $2.5 million from the parks budget between July 1st and year’s end. That, Everson noted, is more than she was expecting. “And we’ve been given our instructions for reductions in the 2011-2012 budget – I can tell you they were a range from a low to a high, and (my earlier guess) was low on both ends.” She also revealed that departments all had been asked to propose cuts that, taken together, would total more than the city needs to cut – so that when Mayor McGinn looks at the big picture citywide, he’ll have choices.

“The good news is, the mayor really does want to avoid closures. The question – can he do that? I hope so.” However, she went on to warn, “We will not be able to make targets for 2011-2012 without some closures.”

Timelines from hereon out: “Budget submittal papers” are due on Monday, she said, and Parks has been asked to come up with more possible alternatives for how it’s going to achieve that $2.5 million midyear-cut. They’ve got a meeting with the mayor on Wednesday; “around the beginning of June,” they should receive final word on the midyear cut, so it’ll become public then. Right after that, early July is when the first draft of the next budget goes out, and the citywide budgeting process rolls on through there, culminating with final Council votes in the fall.

One thing for sure, acting superintendent Christopher Williams declared, “There will be a new definition of what is normal, who we partner with to deliver programs, how we utilize our community centers – can the city staff the buildings for part of the time we currently staff them, is there a partnership model out there that makes sense to keep the doors open … We may (never be able to) go back to doing business the way we have done business (for decades, with all-city-staffed facilities).” He also had mentioned, earlier in the meeting, that Parks and the mayor had met to more closely review a proposal made by the Seattle Masters swimming group involving the city’s aquatics facilities. (We haven’t been able to find details on that, but it apparently was presented during the recent public hearings on the budget; another aquatic matter hanging in the balance is whether wading pools will open this year at all – Joelle Hammerstad in Parks confirms that word on that won’t come till the midyear-cut announcement in early June.)

A side discussion ensued on issues that might be raised by partnerships, particularly involving labor; Everson said there would be difficulties with having a certain job done one day by a “represented city employee with benefits” and the next day by a “lower-paid partner employee with no benefits.” She also warned that the department had gotten in trouble in the past by “eliminating management but not eliminating the work” that was managed.

Board member Terry Holme also warned, “I don’t want to see us getting involved in partnerships just as a way of getting through a bad budget.”

Also part of the budget discussion, the issue of marketing; one board member quoted West Seattleite Bruce Bentley as saying during budget hearings that Seattle Parks programs should be more widely marketed, and West Seattle-residing Parks Board vice chair Neal Adams said he wholeheartedly agreed: “If you’re not reminding the public about the wonderful programs and services” they may not know they exist – “I, like many people, take Parks for granted.”

That was when the board voted to look into what could be proposed – perhaps as early as this year – to find funding to avoid closures, whether a maintenance/operations levy, or something else.

Backtracking to other meeting toplines:

SUPERINTENDENT TRIBUTE: Before and after Gallagher spoke to the board, he was the topic of tributes, and recipient of a gift from West Seattle-residing board chair Jackie Ramels (a tie – Gallagher quipped, “I don’t wear those any more”), as well as guest of honor during a quick meeting break for cake. He was hailed at least twice for “thinking … outside the box.”

ACTING SUPERINTENDENT’S PRIORITIES: Williams said the priorities he’s laid out for this time of transition include “resolve internal issues and conflicts early,” “focus on employee morale,” and “thinking and acting more strategically, particularly in how we relate to the public … and elected officials.” He noted with pride that “Parks is the only city department that has been invited (to the mayor’s office) to have face-to-face discussions about the budget. The mayor wants to prevent closure of our facilities … we feel very encouraged and bolstered by that support.”

P-PATCHES: A May 27th briefing is planned on various issues relating to P-Patches, including “term limits” and the long wait list. For now, the mayor’s office said to “maintain the status quo,” but a “strategic process” is ahead to figure out how to expand access and have multiple city departments cost-share for the program. Parks is involved, it was clarified, not to manage the program, but to clarify – via a forthcoming “memo of understanding” with the Department of Neighborhoods – how money will be spent for the the P-Patches created by the Parks and Green Spaces Levy (that includes some in West Seattle, such as the 34th/Barton parcel east of the former Exxon station).

TREE-TRIMMING PERMITS: There’s a moratorium on the permits requested by park neighbors, per a Parks discussion with the mayor’s office, since the policy is being clarified legislatively soon. Parks has three requests pending.

CLOTHING-OPTIONAL PARKS FACILITIES? No, reiterated acting superintendent Williams, after two members of the public — including one man who identified himself as living in Fremont, describing his neighborhood as “naked capital of the world” — brought up the issue during the public-comment period, saying it was something that many Parks users were clamoring for. Williams said, “Clothing-optional parks are not part of the current strategic thinking,” case closed. For now.

2 WEST SEATTLE PROJECTS ON THE CUMULATIVE RESERVE SUBFUND LIST: Among the projects on a citywide list presented by top Parks manager Kevin Stoops, a new restroom for Riverview Playfield in Highland Park, which would cost $410,000, and a filtering project for Lincoln Park’s Colman Pool, which has long discharged “backwash water” into Puget Sound and “can’t do that any more,” according to Stoops – that would cost $275,000.

KUDOS: Board chair Ramels told the story of a Parks worker who noticed a car weaving and pulled his truck alongside the vehicle, honking his horn, flashing his lights, trying to get the attention of the driver, who was edged “safely to the side of the road.” Turned out the driver was a diabetic who was about to – and did, after pulling over – pass out. Medics were called and everyone got through it safely. “In everyday lives, there are acts of heroism every day,” Ramels observed, saying that when she heard the story, “it made my day.”

The Seattle Board of Park Commissioners, a volunteer citizen advisory board, meets the second Thursday of the month, 7 pm, Parks HQ downtown; agendas and other info can be found here. Since West Seattle contains so much parkland and so many Parks facilities, WSB covers the board’s regular meetings as often as we can.

11 Replies to "Seattle Parks Board: Budget-cut update; Gallagher's parting words"

  • cjboffoli May 14, 2010 (10:32 am)

    I’m curious as to why, if a private developer can build an entire 1,500 square foot townhouse for $400,000 (including the cost of the land) and still make a profit, why it costs the City the same amount to build ONE RESTROOM on land they already own. Municipal budgeting always defies my understanding.

  • Bob May 14, 2010 (11:47 am)

    I bought (not built) my townhome for $300,000… where are your numbers coming from?

  • Skeeter May 14, 2010 (1:06 pm)

    My only thought is maybe the bathroom is a long way from an existing water and/or sewer line so a large part of the price is getting utilities there. Unlike a development where utilities are probably closeby and the costs are shared by multiple units.

  • d May 14, 2010 (2:05 pm)

    Riverview currently has a building which I thought HAD a restroom, but I’ve never looked that closely. I do know there’s a water fountain right outside which doesn’t work. I was just there yesterday and happened to notice that much. Maybe it’s $400 K to fix the water fountain ;). KIDDING! KIDDING!

    Actually, maybe it’s the cost for a restroom for the PeeWee Field area further north in the park? That might explain the big numbers because the fields are way off the main road, across the park and down a sloped rough road, a few hundred feet at least, to where the playfields and small rough parking lot are – pretty much surrounded by the greenbelt down there.

    • WSB May 14, 2010 (2:17 pm)

      There is a “comfort station” now, according to the short briefing Kevin Stoops gave the board last night, but it dates back to 1960 and apparently needs improvement.

  • Daniel Johnson May 14, 2010 (3:24 pm)

    Acting Sup. Christopher Williams indicated at the meeting that he would meet at least once with members of the skinny dipping community who wish to discuss creating clothing-optional beach areas in Seattle Parks.

  • Lynne May 14, 2010 (3:42 pm)

    Great article, Tracy. Well done.

  • Paul May 14, 2010 (4:40 pm)

    It’s quite clear that parks budgets do need prioritizing.

    One board member originally proposed the resolution as moving toward a maintenance and operations levy, since those are the areas in which the department says it’s lacking funding – even as levies were approved in recent years allotting plenty for park construction and land acquisition.

    Maintenance and operations should be the core functions the parks should always perform, even if that means it’s at the expense of new park development. The fact that the department has plenty of money for sexy projects, and not enough for maintenance and operation sends the same message to me when I hear of someone who has new cars, takes trips to Hawaii, but doesn’t have enough for the house payment.

    • WSB May 14, 2010 (4:45 pm)

      Paul – Sorry if I didn’t include adequate context in this story, but as Parks relates it, the big problem is that the project money comes from levies that were written for acquisition and development ONLY – like Parks and Green Spaces two years ago – and did not contain maintenance money for the new facilities, nor can the money be used for that.

  • rudy May 14, 2010 (10:21 pm)

    So, I’ve been watching closely for the summer wading pool schedule to come out as well as the summer combined brochure for the Southwestern community centers. Have they been slow to come due to financial uncertainty or am I just over-anxious?

  • Dewey Potter May 17, 2010 (6:41 pm)

    Thanks to “d” for letting us at Parks know about the water fountain at Riverview. I’ve called in a work order to get it fixed.

Sorry, comment time is over.