IT’S summer in Seattle and people are outside enjoying our city’s great quality of life — our fantastic restaurants and food trucks, our world-class arts and music scene, our successful sports teams and, of course, our parks.
Whether at a picnic or barbecue, riding a bike or a kayak, taking a stroll or flying a kite, chances are, in the past week of warm weather and sunny skies, you’ve visited one of the nearly 500 parks, playfields, community centers and natural areas that make up our city’s common backyard.
As grateful heirs of a rich, century-long legacy, Seattleites want to see our well-loved and well-used parks maintained and improved. But in order to continue providing great recreational opportunities for Seattle’s growing population of people of all ages, abilities and incomes, our parks need long-term, stable funding.
On Aug. 5, Seattle voters will have the opportunity to be more than grateful heirs — we’ll have an opportunity to leave our own parks legacy for future generations by approving Proposition 1.
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The reality is, our parks are facing a serious, decadelong funding challenge, which has now reached a critical point. Nearly $270 million is required just to pay for maintaining and restoring the parks we currently have — to say nothing of future growth and expansion.
How’d we get here? The devastating Tim Eyman tax initiatives in the early 2000s put strict limits on our ability to dedicate general-fund revenue to parks. And, dramatic budget cuts caused by the Great Recession made things significantly worse.
Two levies over the past decade have attempted to make up for lost parks funding. But relying on municipal levies as the primary funding for our parks is an insufficient, risky and unpredictable strategy.
First, our current maintenance backlog is far too massive to be met with a levy renewal. There simply isn’t enough capacity to meet the demand.
Second, while Seattle voters are very generous with their levy votes, the list of worthy services funded at the ballot box is long — including affordable housing, education and transportation. The prospect of voter fatigue is real, and carries very real consequences.
Lastly, while levies are helpful tools for rescuing programs facing imminent cuts (like Metro Transit), levies are not sustainable ways of funding the day-to-day operations of programs the public relies upon. Their relatively short-term renewal cycle and their dependence upon a wide variety of ever-changing factors make it very difficult to plan beyond several years at a time.
That’s why, for nine months, a diverse and committed group of citizens volunteered to serve on a committee that studied options for funding parks after the current 2008 parks levy expires.
They settled on the proven, effective strategy of creating a Seattle Park District, both as a way to remove the risk and unpredictability of relying on levies, and to ensure that our parks are well-managed, properly maintained and able to grow with and respond to the needs of a growing population.
It’s a strategy Seattle voters should support.
A park district is not a new or radical idea: Tacoma established its district more than a century ago. Pullman uses a park district to fund its parks, as do more than a dozen other cities large and small throughout Washington.
If Tacoma and Pullman can make critical improvements, build new parks, and expand community-center hours for kids and families through their parks districts, so can Seattle.
A Seattle Park District would maintain strict citizen oversight and would be subject to the same scrutiny and accountability of any other Seattle department of service. Voters could make leadership changes every election cycle when they vote for City Council members, who would also serve as park district board members.
Our parks need the stable, dedicated revenue that Proposition 1 would finally provide.
I hope voters will agree with more than 60 community groups, the Municipal League and thousands of our neighbors to approve this important measure, sustaining for future generations the legacy of an accessible, well-maintained, well-provided parks system that previous generations left for us.
Ed Murray is mayor of Seattle.