Standing in a West Seattle community center where he played as a kid, Seattle Mayor Ed Murray on Thursday threw his support behind creating a parks district — a new, permanent taxing authority that would help finance the city’s parks and community centers.
Murray said he would forward to the City Council legislation to ask voters to support a parks district that would raise $54 million a year, more than double the current tax levy that is set to expire in 2014, but $3 million less than a citizens committee recommended last month.
The council will have until May 5 to amend and approve the proposal and place it on the August ballot.
A $54 million annual property-tax assessment would cost the owner of a $400,000 home $168 a year. The current levy costs the same homeowner $76 a year.
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Once established, the parks district would continue as an independent taxing authority, like a school or port district, and would not require renewal by voters.
Murray said the park system’s current $267 million maintenance backlog was the result of years of underfunding and budget cuts during the recession. He said new revenue was needed to undertake repairs, restore community-center hours and expand recreational opportunities across the city.
“Unless we can maintain these facilities and deliver basic services and operations, our open spaces and community centers will deteriorate and become unsafe and obsolete,” Murray said, adding, “Most Seattleites would find that completely unacceptable.”
Murray expressed confidence that the legislation could be written to address critics concerned about oversight and accountability of the untried taxing district. Tacoma and Minneapolis have operated as parks districts for more than a century, but only about 16 other Washington cities have adopted the funding mechanism.
As currently envisioned, the City Council would be the governing board and would approve annual work plans and budgets. Murray said he would create a citizen oversight committee to audit and review the projects undertaken with the new funding.
He said the ballot measure would also contain provisions that parks’ current level of general-fund support — about $85 million annually — would not be cut except in an emergency and with approval by two-thirds of the City Council.
Murray noted that West Seattle’s Hiawatha Community Center, built in 1911, was the city’s oldest and sorely in need of upgrades. Cracks are visible along the gym walls where a concrete wall had settled unevenly. The high, painted windows let in little natural light. The bathrooms aren’t accessible to the disabled.
And, because of the facility’s small size, he said, the waiting lists for before- and after-school care are longer than the number of children enrolled.
Rob Wunder, president of the Hiawatha Community Center Advisory Council who attended the noontime news conference, said the creation of a parks district would allow the city to make major repairs to the building.
“I think it would be huge improvement. It’s a way for the parks system to get guaranteed funding over a long time,” he said. “We’re bursting at the seams.”
Lynn Thompson: firstname.lastname@example.org