When King County voters agreed four years ago to pay higher property taxes to keep regional parks open, it was in the midst of a crushing...

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When King County voters agreed four years ago to pay higher property taxes to keep regional parks open, it was in the midst of a crushing budget crisis.

Now, as voters consider whether to renew and expand the levy in the Aug. 21 primary, that earlier feeling of desperation is gone.

But supporters of ballot propositions 1 and 2 — which, together, would cost twice as much as the present levy — say the county still can’t afford to operate and maintain regional and rural parks unless the existing tax is extended. Proposition 1, known as “the renewal levy,” would fund continued operation of regional attractions like Marymoor Park, Cougar Mountain Regional Wildland Park and parts of the Burke-Gilman Trail. It also would restore maintenance to 2002 levels and begin a program of repairing 75 aging trail bridges and trestles.

Proposition 2, “the expansion levy,” would give the county 3 cents of every nickel collected to buy land or development rights, particularly along shorelines and streams, and to expand the regional trail system. One cent would be split among 39 cities for open space and trail projects, and 1 cent would go to the Woodland Park Zoo.

Combined, the two levies would raise $217 million over six years.

“It’s pretty simple,” said King County Councilmember Larry Phillips. “King County’s park system is our big back yard. It’s available to everyone living in King County. It’s a spectacular system. We need to keep it open and make it better.

“Proposition 1 keeps it operating, and Proposition 2 makes it better.”

If both levies are approved by voters, each would mean 5 cents tax per $1,000 of assessed valuation in the first year — for a combined tax of $40 a year on a home assessed at $400,000. Unlike traditional levies, the amount collected would increase annually based on the consumer price index.

The present parks levy costs 4.2 cents per $1,000 — or almost $17 a year on a $400,000 house.

There is no organized opposition to the levies, but some elected officials oppose one or both.

After the County Council voted unanimously to put Proposition 1 on the primary ballot, council members Reagan Dunn and Kathy Lambert, both Eastside Republicans, voted against Proposition 2.

Dunn said he feared the expansion levy would hurt the prospects of the regional roads and transit package on the November ballot. Lambert said open-space acquisitions are less urgent than improving roads and rebuilding flood-control levees on several rivers.

“What happens in government,” Lambert said, “is we always get asked to fund lots of good things. We cannot be Santa Claus. We can’t fund all the good things we get asked to fund. We have to set priorities.”

Seattle City Councilmember Richard McIver said the parks levies aren’t fair to Seattle, which passed its own $198 million Pro Parks Levy in 2000. That levy expires at the end of next year.

McIver recalled that King County resolved its earlier funding crisis, in part, by giving away parks inside cities. “Now,” he said, “they want us to pick up the slack and Seattle voters pay the operating expenses — and they buy more parks? Excuse me? And none of the money comes back to Seattle?”

A share of Proposition 2 would go to cities and Seattle’s Woodland Park Zoo. McIver called funding of the zoo “the Christmas tree ornament to say, ‘See, we did something for you.’ “

Phillips, a Seattle Democrat, said it makes sense for city residents to pay for county parks, just as they support state and national parks. Most users of King County’s regional parks, he said, live in Seattle or the county’s 38 other cities: “They love to go to Marymoor, and they love to go to Cougar Mountain, and they love to ride their bikes and walk the trails of the regional trail system.”

The 2003 levy also came under fire from Seattle City Council members Peter Steinbrueck and Nick Licata, who complained that none of the taxes would be spent in Seattle. But 64.1 percent of voters in Seattle, and 56.7 percent countywide, voted yes.

Proposition 2 would give cities money for park projects: $3.2 million in 2008, distributed on the basis of population and assessed land value, and escalating to an estimated $4 million in 2013. Seattle’s Woodland Park Zoo would receive the same amount.

The biggest contributor to the pro-levy Parks and Recreation Coalition campaign is the Woodland Park Zoological Society, which also underwrote Seattle’s 2000 “Pro Parks” campaign.

County Parks Director Kevin Brown said county parks haven’t fully recovered from the 2002 budget crisis, which led the county to slash its parks budget, reduce maintenance schedules, turn many parks and pools over to suburban cities, and sell naming rights to the Marymoor velodrome and concert series.

The enlarged renewal levy would restore routine maintenance activities such as mowing, restroom cleaning and trash pickups to 2002’s levels. It also would pay for repairs of railroad-era bridges that have been damaged by inadequate maintenance and weed control, Brown said.

A parks task force convened last November by County Executive Ron Sims proposed the two levies on the August ballot. Sims reduced the renewal levy from the 7 cents per $1,000 assessed valuation recommended by the task force to 5 cents. The task force wanted the higher amount mostly to offset an expected decline in real-estate excise-tax revenues used for parks projects.

Cascade Land Conservancy President Gene Duvernoy and Eastside developer and retailer Ron Sher co-chaired the parks task force.

Phillips said levy proceeds wouldn’t be used to buy BNSF Railway’s Renton-to-Snohomish rail line, but he said some money could be used to build a trail there.

Keith Ervin: 206-464-2105 or kervin@seattletimes.com