At the turn of the 20th century, the young city of Tacoma faced a dilemma.
Since being named the western terminus for the Northern Pacific Railway, Tacoma had been growing rapidly for three decades, attracting transplants by the thousands who hoped to strike it rich in the developing city.
But with growth came massive infrastructure costs, and Tacoma had hit its borrowing limit. Meanwhile, Seattle and Portland were investing big money in parks systems, both poised to outspend and outgrow Tacoma’s.
“If we were going to be a world-class city, we needed world-class parks,” said Melissa McGinnis, historian for Metro Parks Tacoma.
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On April 2, 1907, the city voted to establish the Metropolitan Park District of Tacoma, an independent body of five elected commissioners with the ability to raise property taxes to be spent on city parks.
“Spokane and Bellingham are taking similar steps,” read a 1907 article from the Tacoma Daily Ledger, published just before the vote, “and before long, it is probable that Seattle will follow.”
“Before long” turned out to be an understatement.
This August — more than a century later — Seattle will vote on the creation of its own Metro Park District, a measure projected to raise about $48 million a year in dedicated park funds, twice what the current levy provides. Mail ballots go out this week, and are due Aug. 5.
The proposal has generated plenty of critics, many of whom object to Seattle’s City Council members acting as the board, rather than an independent body of commissioners like in Tacoma. But proponents stress that the district is vital to clearing out the city’s $267 million backlog in parks maintenance and — similar to Tacoma’s predicament in 1907 — necessary to expanding the parks fast enough to accommodate a city recently named the fastest growing in the country.
“This is the city on the move, and we are becoming quite dense very quickly,” said Barbara Wright, who helped craft the proposal as co-chair of the Parks Legacy Citizens’ Advisory Committee. “We need to keep our competitive edge, but we also need to provide and plan for those folks. And we don’t know what the future trends are going to be.”
The Seattle plan
Under its current system, Seattle’s parks are bankrolled by dedicated money in the city’s general fund and $24 million raised annually by a six-year levy, which will expire this year. This year, the city endorsed a parks and recreation budget of nearly $135 million, the majority of which — about $90 million — came from the city’s general fund. The rest came from user fees, rental charges and capital funds.
Since the recession, parks funding from the general fund has not increased enough to keep up with the growing size of the parks system, according to an analysis from the advisory committee.
“Every park district and every park system nationally is facing the same problems,” said City Councilmember Sally Bagshaw, who chaired the Select Committee on Parks Funding. “When you had a budget reduction like we’ve had in a major recession, you’ve got to find a way to take care of your parks.”
Last year, the city appointed the citizen-run legacy committee to find another way. The committee identified several fundamental problems facing the parks, including the maintenance issues, the changing role of the general fund and a deficiency of funding for basic services, such as low-cost recreational programs.
The committee considered several solutions based on how other cities have coped with funding issues, ultimately deciding a parks board would be the most efficient, said Wright.
If the ballot measure passes in August, the board plans to tax Seattleites 33 cents per $1,000 of assessed property value. The City Council-operated board would have the legal ability to raise that to 75 cents per $1,000. Councilmembers say they have no plans to do so now without citizen input, but there’s no way of predicting the actions of a future council.
“There’ll be new councilmembers coming in the future and they’ll be subject to other pressures,” said City Councilmember Nick Licata. “So there’s no guarantee it wouldn’t be raised or decreased within the limits of the law.”
If the measure does pass, the tax won’t go into effect until 2016, said Eric Friedli, acting deputy parks superintendent. The city plans to spend $10 million next year on parks and almost $48 million in 2016, in addition to general-fund spending.
At the top of the priority list is reducing the maintenance backlog. The city will spend almost $28 million in 2016 on property maintenance, forest preservation and community-center development.
Almost $4 million will go to maintaining parks and facilities. About $3.3 million will be spent on programs for youth, community centers and other recreation programs. More than $11.1 million will go toward future projects, such as the development of 14 new parks.
“Our city becomes — with great parks — a place where people want to be,” said Wright, of the advisory committee. “And when businesses want to be here and employees want to be here, everybody benefits from that.”
Seattle versus Tacoma
Tacoma’s park leaders credit the creation of the district — 107 years old now — for the city’s successful parks system, which is now home to more than 60 parks and recreational facilities and almost 3,000 acres of park land.
But a primary factor in that success has been the park district’s independence, said Jack Wilson, Tacoma’s executive director — which is where Seattle’s plan differs. Instead of a commission of elected members, Seattle’s city councilmembers will fill its board.
Every city is different, said Wilson, so the council-run model could very well work for Seattle. But being independent has allowed the Tacoma park district to focus all its resources on the parks and engage better with the community, he said.
“In Seattle, it just may be the right hybrid or the right mechanism,” Wilson said. “We can only tell you that this independent structure has served this community very well. And in my 40 years experience, there is no better structure in which to truly, truly advance the parks and recreation agenda, in my humble opinion.”
Some community members have come out against the Seattle plan, arguing that it lacks accountability and takes citizen input out of the equation.
“It’s an inherent conflict of interest,” said Toby Thaler, a Seattle attorney who opposes the ballot initiative. “Their interest in setting up the park-revenue stream is in direct conflict with their interest in protecting all the other functions of the city.”
Brad Kahn, board chair of the Seattle Parks Foundation, which from the beginning has been involved in getting the measure on the ballot, said a City Council-run park district will make for a streamlined process.
“A whole separate elected body with a bureaucracy to support it made absolutely no sense,” Kahn said.
The independent, elected model would also be more expensive, as it would require new salaries for commissioners and their staff, said Councilmember Bagshaw.
“It’s pretty easy to figure that it would be a million-dollar entity very quickly, whereas with the City Council it’s all built in,” she said.
A handful of other communities in Washington have used similar council-run park district models, including Pullman, Normandy Park and Shelton, Mason County. Kurt Dahmen, recreation superintendent for Pullman, a city of about 30,000, said the structure has made for a quick and easy process since implementing it in 2003.
“It just seems more logical to have our council involved in that, because it just ties into our whole city budget, which they’re involved in anyway,” he said.
If the Seattle measure doesn’t pass in August, the city will have to come up with a new funding mechanism when the levy expires later this year, said Bagshaw, stressing that it would be a major setback to properly funding Seattle’s parks.
“If it doesn’t pass, we’re back to the drawing board,” she said. “We’ll be spending another year or two saying, ‘What is it, how is it that you want to fund your parks?’ And if someone says, ‘We want to do a levy again,’ we will never — ever — catch up to this deferred maintenance.”
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