Hordes of people circled Green Lake on Saturday night for the annual holiday walk by candlelight. They pushed strollers and wheelchairs, pulled wagons and dogs, many complementing the luminaria spaced along the pathway with their own necklaces of glowing and blinking Christmas lights.
By daylight, the scene at the city’s most popular park is less festive. The Community Center, parts of it dating to 1927, is aging and worn. The bathrooms lack adequate access for people with disabilities. The gym is poorly lit. The pipes under the swimming pool are rusted.
And if you really want to provoke a shudder among park staff and users, just mention some of the bathrooms around the lake — and at parks throughout the city — that look more like prison cells than public amenities.
“They’re dark, dank, nasty places, they’re frequently the site of illicit activity and they’re not anywhere you want to take a kid,” said Christopher Williams, acting parks superintendent.
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Aging, neglected and, in some cases, unsafe facilities are one of the biggest problems facing the city’s well-loved parks system. Parks officials say the costs of deferred maintenance have climbed to almost $270 million and include deteriorated community centers and stadiums, failing heating and electrical systems, leaking roofs, muddy sports fields and crumbling stairs and retaining walls.
A 2008 parks levy raised millions for the acquisition of new park land across the city, but didn’t include money for major repairs.
With that levy set to expire in 2014, a citizen’s Parks Legacy Committee plans to take public testimony in January and make recommendations in March to the mayor and City Council about priorities and funding options for a potential ballot measure that could go before voters in August.
While the committee could support renewing the existing levy, that measure raised just $24 million a year. A similarly sized levy wouldn’t make much dent in the outstanding maintenance needs, said City Councilmember Sally Bagshaw, who chairs the Council Parks Committee.
But one funding idea that’s emerged — a Metropolitan Parks District that could potentially raise more money and be a permanent source of funding for the parks system — is getting stiff resistance from some neighborhood activists because it creates an independent tax authority run by an independent board, much like a school district.
These critics say it would give the Parks Department a blank check in perpetuity and lack oversight and accountability, although all preliminary discussions have suggested that the City Council would serve as the governing board.
Another concern is that with a new source of funding, city leaders would cut the existing parks budget as other priorities emerged. The parks budget was cut about $5 million between 2008 and 2013 as city revenues fell and a higher priority was placed on public safety and human services.
“There’s no question that we need an expanded effort to fund parks, particularly in light of the city’s growing population. But creating a new taxing authority risks having parks general fund support from the city supplanted,” said Bruce Carter, a Magnolia resident and former chairman of the Municipal League of King County.
Unlike a levy with a fixed dollar amount, a Metropolitan Parks District can assess its own property tax up to 75 cents per $1,000 of assessed value. Compare that to the current six-year levy that cost voters just 19 cents per $1,000.
And though it’s likely the initial tax rate would be much lower than the maximum allowed by state law, Seattleites wouldn’t know what they’d be paying. That would be up to the governing board, if voters authorized a parks district.
While park districts are common in some parts of the country — both Minneapolis and Tacoma parks have operated for more than a century with a separate governing and taxing authority — they haven’t been widely used in this state.
There is some precedent for the City Council serving as governing board for a new taxing district. The council administers the city’s Transportation Benefit District under which every driver in the city pays a $20 vehicle license fee. Those funds go to the city’s transportation needs, including a big maintenance backlog. The Council contracts with the Seattle Department of Transportation to do the work.
If a parks district were created, the new tax stream could go toward a work plan approved each year by the City Council.
“We voted the City Council in. How could they not be accountable?” asked Barbara Wright, co-chairwoman of the Parks Legacy Committee.
One person surprised by the pushback is Mayor-elect Ed Murray, who spoke on the campaign trail in favor of creating a Metropolitan Parks District (MPD). At his first news conference last week, Murray said that if you told Democrats in Olympia that you’d identified a new, ongoing, stable source of revenue that didn’t require going back to the voters every six years, “they’d be doing cheers in the rotunda, throwing paper in the air in happiness.”
But that hasn’t been the reaction of some Seattle neighborhood activists who in letters to the Parks Legacy Committee and in blog posts raise the specter of a rogue taxing district selling off parks land, using eminent domain to condemn other property and operating without regard to city laws on competitive bidding, equal employment, human rights and tree protection.
“It appears that under state law, an MPD cannot be undone by voters; and if dissolved by its board, that the MPD’s assets must be auctioned off, not returned to the city,” wrote Philip Shack, chairman of the City Neighborhood Council, in an October letter to the mayor, city attorney, city council and the Parks Legacy Committee.
Those scenarios are extremely unlikely, said Charlie Zaragoza, the other co-chairman of the committee.
“There’s a lot of misinformation and skewing of facts,” he said. But he acknowledged that because a parks district is a new funding mechanism, supporters will have to do a lot of education to sell the idea to the public, if that’s what committee members decide to recommend.
“It could blow up because people don’t understand it,” he said.
Murray echoed those concerns, but said he’s not wedded to a Metropolitan Parks District.
“Ultimately my goal is not getting my funding source passed, it’s getting our parks funded,” he said.
Over its six months of work, the Legacy Committee has come up with its own list of priorities. At the top is enough money to repair and maintain the existing parks system.
That may mean winning support from citizens and elected leaders to enact a larger funding measure, potentially one that’s never been tried before, said Jessie Israel, a former King County Parks administrator.
“We don’t want to just pass the buck. We need a radical shift if we want to maintain one of the best park systems in the country,” she said.
Lynn Thompson: firstname.lastname@example.org or 206-464-8305. On Twitter F@lthompsontimes