The Seattle Parks District is considering nearly doubling an existing parks levy in its next six-year budget cycle, in an effort to fund $30 million in new investments and supplement the city’s general fund.
A proposal from the city’s Board of Parks and Recreation Commissioners to the Parks District Board — a body made up of members of the Seattle City Council designed to tax and fund some parks and recreation projects in the city — would add about $50 million to the district’s annual budget, by upping the tax rate from $0.20 per $1,000 of assessed value to around $0.37 in 2023.
The increased rate would cover $108 million in 2023, including $58 million to continue ongoing initiatives approved in the first budget cycle; $10 million for COVID-19 recovery for the city; $10 million in debt service for pre-committed projects; and $30 million to fund new projects and programs.
A 2014 ballot measure approved by voters established the Parks 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. To date, the city hasn’t been collecting anywhere near that cap, sticking to a rate of $0.20 in 2022, costing the median homeowner in Seattle about $155 annually, according to a presentation by the council’s central staff.
To fund the new plan, the council members, acting as the Parks District, would have to approve a rate increase, bringing it to just over $300 per year for the median household. If the rate increased with inflation at an estimated rate of 4% annually throughout the cycle, that number would be $411 in 2028.
The rate moved only slightly during its first six years, nudging the total collected by the district from $47.7 million ($141 for median households) in 2016, to $56 million ($155 for median households) in 2022.
“These last few years, we’ve seen a public health crisis, several major climate events and a racial reckoning. In each and every one of these, our parks and rec system has been front and center in responding,” BPRC Co-Chair Eric Herrera said in a presentation to the Metropolitan Park District Board. “We owe it to our communities to meet the growing demands on the crown jewels of our public realm.”
The proposed plan would include new investments like additional basketball and pickleball courts, and improvements to existing facilities like the Greenlake Community Center, which had been expected to be replaced, but will now undergo renovation instead.
Some members of the district board questioned the steep increase when it was introduced at the end of June.
“We can see the significant impact here. It’s basically doubling this property tax on not only homeowners but also renters because, as we established early, landlords can pass these costs on to renters,” Parks District board member and City Councilmember Alex Pedersen said, noting he was “concerned” about the amount combined with other existing local levies on affordable housing, education and transportation.
“Seattleites love their parks. We’re excited that a lot of them have been restored and we want to sustain that, I know, and look at expanding,” he added. “I’m just concerned because this proposal would be doubling the property tax and then we’ve got other important levies that are coming up.”
One item included in the proposal from the board of commissioners, which was originally introduced by the Parks Department, would use $10 million of the new revenue for at least the first two years to supplant the city’s general fund contributions to the Parks Department, to reduce general fund obligations as the city faces a projected $117 million revenue shortfall in 2023.
“This was proposed, I think, to anticipate the situation that the city could be in 2023, and how the Parks District could provide post-COVID relief to the city’s general fund situation,” Acting Parks Superintendent Christopher Williams said of the proposal.
Board member and Councilmember Andrew Lewis said the board should “really scrutinize and grapple with” whether the Parks District can be a “balancing tool” for the city’s general fund.
“In general terms, I am a skeptic of supplementation through the Metropolitan Parks District, and that is in no way to say we don’t have a challenging looming budget cycle,” Lewis said, questioning if picking up general fund obligations would fit within the intent of the taxing authority.
“I’m open to having this discussion of course, given the pressures we’re facing, but I do think we need to be mindful of the four corners of what the voters who created this authority in the 2014 election were promised,” he said.
The district plans a vote on the six-year plan in September, and will continue discussing the proposal in a meeting Monday and in a public hearing July 14.