SEATTLE loves its parks, and should have access to beautiful, safe and well-maintained urban green spaces. But in the name of good parks, the Seattle City Council is asking voters to give them a blank check, with increased power and weaker oversight.
Citizens should reject Proposition 1, the Seattle Park District measure. This is not merely a replacement for the existing parks levy, which citizens have generously passed every six years. (Currently, property owners pay about 20 cents per thousand dollars of assessed value per year — or about $88 on a home valued at $440,000.)
As pro-parks community activist Gail Chiarello so effectively describes Proposition 1: “It’s pretending to be a Bambi, when it’s really a Godzilla.”
With the support of Mayor Ed Murray, Proposition 1 proposes a new, permanent taxing authority controlled by the City Council. Collections in 2016 would start at a total of 33 cents per $1,000 of a home’s assessed value (about $145 on a home worth $440,000), but the council could more than double that amount to 75 cents per $1,000, or $330 per year — without ever having to check with voters.
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Under state law, this district cannot be dissolved by a public vote. Neither would citizens be able to file initiatives against decisions they disagree with.
Though a 15-member citizens’ committee would ostensibly provide oversight, the real control is with the City Council. The parks district essentially creates a shadow city government, run by the same Seattle City Council with the same borders as the City of Seattle, but with vast new authority to levy up to about $89 million in new annual taxes on the same Seattle taxpayers.
There are not enough safeguards to stop the council from diverting general funds to other causes, such as sports arenas.
Proponents promise yearly department audits, but only after the measure becomes law.
Why wait? The city should conduct a robust, independent performance and financial audit before even attempting to ask voters to trust them and sign a blank check. Citizens deserve to know how funds have been used so far, and how the city might invest limited parks revenue more wisely. Here’s why:
• According to The Trust for Public Land, Seattle Parks and Recreation is ranked second in the nation for the number of employees per 10,000 residents among the nation’s 100 most populous cities. City spending on parks ranks fourth in the nation. Yet, it faces a daunting maintenance crisis that has left some buildings dilapidated, pools unusable, bathrooms dank and even allowed a broken pump at Green Lake to leak raw sewage.
• Despite campaign rhetoric calling on voters to invest in fixing parks, Proposition 1 would dedicate only about 58 percent, or $28 million, of revenue in the district’s first year toward chipping away at the city’s $270 million maintenance backlog. Eight percent, or $3 million, would pay for maintaining facilities. More than a quarter of the budget is slated for new programs and expansion.
Seattle needs to care for current assets before amassing more. It also ought to expand partnerships with nonprofits and private groups willing and ready to help sustain recreation programs.
Preserving parks is critical to quality of life and public health. The mayor and council members are understandably eager to create dedicated parks funding and free up room in limited levy capacity for other worthy programs, such as universal preschool. But they have failed to make a case for a Seattle Park District that gives elected officials so much additional, unfettered power to tax and spend.
By rejecting Proposition 1, voters send a strong message to city leadership: We love parks, but return with a levy or alternate measure that prioritizes park needs, holds officials more accountable and preserves citizen participation.
Editorial board members are editorial page editor Kate Riley, Frank A. Blethen, Ryan Blethen, Sharon Pian Chan, Lance Dickie, Jonathan Martin, Erik Smith, Thanh Tan, William K. Blethen (emeritus) and Robert C. Blethen (emeritus).