Seattle parks are beloved. Public opinion about the city’s stewardship of parks is another matter entirely.
The number of residents who awarded Seattle Parks an “A” dropped by half since 2019, from 23% to 12%, while “F” grades more than tripled, according to a Seattle Parks and Recreation Department survey earlier this year.
In the survey, 21% of residents gave the Parks Department an “F” for maintenance and cleanliness; only 9% awarded an “A.”
Anyone who has spent time in Seattle’s 485 parks can see with their own eyes what ails the system. Broken sinks and toilets in the restrooms. Graffiti. Vandalism.
Against this backdrop of dissatisfaction, the Seattle City Council on Friday began a process to renew and possibly expand property taxes dedicated to parks.
Residents and park lovers should pay close attention. Besides the dollars at stake, if and how people’s perceptions of parks improves depends on the priorities set by the council and Mayor Bruce Harrell.
Elected officials should take careful measure of expenses and outcomes, and make basic maintenance the top priority.
Parks funding is opaque and complicated. Its governance is odd: The Seattle Park District’s Governing Board is the Seattle City Council, the same 9 members without the possibility of an executive veto. It’s next to impossible to understand how things are paid for just by viewing the online dashboards and budgets.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way. In 2014, voters approved the creation of the Seattle Park District, which provided a dedicated, ongoing property tax.
According to the pro-statement in the voter’s pamphlet, the funds would go to major and ongoing maintenance “like cleaning restrooms, trash pickup, and mowing.” It would also pay for maintenance at Woodland Park Zoo and Seattle Aquarium, two city-owned facilities operated by separate nonprofits.
At the time, there was concern City Hall would transfer city money out of parks and increasingly rely on the property taxes. This is called “supplanting” — reducing funds because other resources are available. To prevent this practice, the council dedicated a minimum amount of the city’s general fund to parks.
During the pandemic, the council broke this pact.
Because of COVID-19-related impacts, about $10 million was cut from parks in 2020 and 2021. That money was never paid back despite the city reaping millions in federal COVID relief. It is also worth noting that no such reduction is found in the city’s overall budget. Indeed, Seattle’s budget and general fund substantially increased in 2020 and 2021, thanks in part to federal aid.
The Park District’s dedicated property taxes pay for about 19% of the overall parks budget, most of the rest comes from the city’s general fund.
A June 10 memo drafted by city analysts notes that Harrell wants further general fund cuts to parks with new property taxes taking up the slack to the tune of $10 million in 2023 and 2024 at least.
A spokesman for Harrell said the numbers were for “planning purposes” and no final decisions had been made.
Councilmember Andrew Lewis, who is leading the Park District Board, said such budget shell games are a big concern. “I’m a skeptic at this point,” he said of the mayor’s proposal.
Besides supplanting funds, there are other questions as well.
According to the Parks financial performance dashboard, 34% of the $189 million Parks operating 2022 budget was spent on “Administration and Support.” By comparison, 18% was dedicated to “Grounds Maintenance.”
The Parks survey of residents listed “increased restroom cleaning” as the No. 1 maintenance priority of poll respondents. When asked to provide the total amount Parks currently spends on restroom maintenance, a spokesperson said, “We don’t track expenses at that level of detail.”
For this year, the dollar amount of the Park District levy for a median residence value of $760,000 is $154. If the Council increases the levy to just under the legally allowable limit without a public vote, the cost to a median residence could be $307 next year.
Lewis just kicked off the Park District budget process, which will be finalized in September. As of Friday morning, there was one public hearing planned, on Thursday, July 14 at 5:30 p.m.
Seattle city government has a long history of convincing voters that it needs extra money to focus on the basics, and then leaving a lot to be desired. Just as the city’s 2006 “Bridging the Gap” transportation initiative and its subsequent renewals have so far failed to repair aging bridges as promised, our parks are left with obvious deficiencies.
Whether the solution is to pour even more dollars in the existing system or demand more accountability for the basics will be determined in the next few months.
Residents who visit and love Seattle parks should let the council know how they feel, and not let bureaucratic fog distract from the very real need to improve these vital public spaces.