The Seattle City Council, acting as the Seattle Park District Board, will vote this month on doubling the district’s levy rate to fund additional park rangers, environmental sustainability and other parks projects over the next six years.
In August, Mayor Bruce Harrell released a proposal to increase funding through the district’s levy, which funds about a third of the city’s park operations, to expand access to park facilities and beef up park staff, including adding 26 park rangers, focused on downtown parks.
Councilmember Andrew Lewis, who serves as president of the board, proposed a series of additions to Harrell’s original pitch, focusing on environmental improvements and community centers.
Lewis’ proposals would add parameters to some of Harrell’s ideas — including upcoming resolutions to prevent the park rangers from participating in the removal of homelessness encampments — and would add around $3 million to the district’s equity fund, which supports neighborhood projects without requiring a funding match, throughout the budget cycle; an additional $4 million to plant trees throughout the city’s parks; expand the Seattle Conservation Corps; and invest in the renovation or decarbonization of nine community centers. Those centers are:
- Lake City Community Center
- Loyal Heights Community Center
- Green Lake Community Center
- Queen Anne Community Center
- South Lake Union Community Center
- Garfield Community Center
- Rainier Community Center
- Van Asselt Community Center
- High Point Community Center
Harrell and Lewis’ plans would bring the district’s budget to between $115 million and $118 million in 2023, and up to $139 million to $143 million by 2028, funded by an increased in the levy assessment rate.
This is only the second round of budgeting for the park district, which was established as a source of supplemental funding for city parks through a 2014 ballot measure. Voters established the park district and granted it the authority to assess and spend up to $0.75 per $1,000 of assessed value without going back for voter approval.
In its first budget cycle, the district didn’t collect anywhere near that cap, sticking to a rate of $0.20 in 2022, which will cost the median homeowner in Seattle a little over $150 this year. In the second budget cycle, from 2023-2028, Harrell and Lewis want to nearly double that rate.
Harrell’s proposal, which Lewis supports and only expanded on Monday, would raise the initial levy from $0.20 per $1,000 of assessed value to $0.38 in 2023. The amendments by Lewis would bump that rate to $0.39, inching slightly closer to the maximum rate authorized in 2014.
Under Lewis’ version, the average Seattle homeowner (with a property value of $860,000) would go from paying about $155 annually to $342 in 2023, and about $450 by 2028, according to council central staff.
The district’s budget is meant to be determined in six-year cycles, but was delayed until this year because of the pandemic.
Asked about the sharp rate increase on Monday, Lewis said there was some concern among the over 300 constituents he spoke to during input sessions this summer, but he believes the consensus is that the increased fee is worth paying.
“The feedback that we heard overwhelmingly was that people wanted a funding mandate for our parks,” Lewis said.
At a park district board meeting Monday afternoon, public commenters repeatedly encouraged the park spending, emphasizing support for increased park rangers in the parks they frequent.
Late Monday, Councilmember Alex Pedersen reiterated concerns he raised during the district’s preliminary budget talks in June, noting that some residents may be overburdened by the city’s increasing levies.
“I’ve heard from many constituents concerned about more than doubling the property tax they pay for city parks. I believe some of the proposed investments are reasonable, but doubling? While we love parks, landlords can pass these costs on to renters, property assessments have increased, and tax proposals for affordable housing, transportation, and education are coming,” Pedersen wrote in a text message.
“Local government leaders need to be sensitive to the cumulative financial impacts on residents, especially those struggling on fixed incomes,” he added.
Asked about how the ranger program would impact unhoused people in parks, Lewis said it would aim to keep parks safe for visitors and would not rely on punitive measures, noting that only one citation was issued by rangers in all of the city’s parks in 2021.
Andrea Ornelas, assistant political director of Laborers Local Union 242, said the unarmed civilian rangers are a valuable asset to community members using public spaces.
“The funding for the rangers within the city parks levy will be important to provide park users and visitors with respectful, professional assistance and quality customer service during their experience,” Ornelas said.
The City Council, meeting as the park board, is expected to vote on the proposed budget next Tuesday in a special meeting after the council hears Harrell’s proposed budget for the city.