Over the objections of some advocates, the Seattle City Council on Monday unanimously approved forwarding to the August ballot the creation of a Seattle Parks District to provide a new and permanent source of funding for the city’s parks and recreation programs.
With parks facing a $267 million maintenance backlog and the loss of community-center hours during the recession, council members said they were persuaded that creation of a parks district could bring in more property-tax revenue than a traditional levy and be less vulnerable to budget cuts in an economic downturn.
Once established, the parks district would be governed by City Council members acting as a separate board and would have the authority to begin assessing property taxes in 2016. It could raise taxes on Seattle property owners up to a maximum of 75 cents on $1,000 of assessed value. The council also adopted a companion agreement to ensure that the city would own and control all park properties and facilities, that a citizen oversight committee would approve spending plans and that about $90 million in existing city funding would not be supplanted.
“I’ve heard the concerns that a parks district would not be accountable,” said Councilmember Nick Licata, who went on to rebut those concerns. “You’ll have the same control you have now, the same people (council members) sitting up here that you vote for, the superintendent will be the same, the employees the same. Tacoma has had a parks district for 100 years. It’s not a perfect system, but from everything I’ve seen, it’s a very workable one.”
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If approved by voters, the measure would raise about $48 million a year. A citizens committee recommended creation of a parks district and set the annual amount raised at $54 million. That recommendation was supported by Mayor Ed Murray. The council reduced the funding package by $6 million.
The proposal is double the current $24 million raised annually by a six-year levy set to expire this year. The parks-district proposal would cost $148 annually for the owner of a $400,000 house, up from the current $76.
Opponents of the measure
said the companion agreement that provided protections for existing parks funding could be undone by a vote of the City Council acting as the parks board.
“You can dissolve the (agreement) at any time. You’re the signing party. All you have to do is talk to yourself,” said Don Harper, a former parks levy oversight committee member.
Carol Fisher called the priorities established by the citizens committee a “parks dream list” and said the parks district will lack citizen accountability.
“We are denied the opportunity to vote on any rules that govern how decisions will be made, what will be funded or how much we will be taxed,” Fisher said.
She, Harper and other parks advocates have formed the group, “Our Parks Forever,” to oppose creation of the parks district.
Opponents also objected to the ballot title for the parks district, a 75-word summary, which they said didn’t adequately inform voters that they were creating a permanent new taxing authority.
“Once approved, voters give up the right to vote on future tax hikes. Nowhere in the title is this even hinted at,” wrote John Fox, a low-income-housing advocate, in a letter to the City Council.
City Councilmember Kshama Sawant said she agreed that additional property taxes placed a burden on middle-income residents when the “superwealthy and big business” should be paying a larger share.
But she said the city had limited taxing authority and that low-income residents and those on fixed-incomes are some of the heaviest users of parks and community centers.
“Sometimes, these are the only services they have access to. It’s important that we’re doing this as a council.”
Lynn Thompson: firstname.lastname@example.org or 206-464-8305. On Twitter @lthompsontimes