Investing in our future – the Proposed Seattle Park District

This August, a ballot measure may be presented to Seattle voters that could create a sustainable and dedicated new funding source for Seattle Parks.  In the past, we have voted for levies with which you are undoubtedly familiar.  You may just beginning to hear about the proposed Seattle Park District.

Urban Parks provide delightful places of respite and are expensive to maintain.

I have repeatedly heard a number of concerns that deserve to be addressed. What follow are my thoughts about the mayor’s proposal on which my colleagues and I will be voting in a couple weeks.  I have provided an Executive Summary for ease of reference.

Executive Summary:

  • A Park District is authorized by state law.  See Ch. 35.61 RCW.
  • Funds raised by the Seattle Park District could ONLY be used for Seattle parks and facilities.
  • Our 2008 Parks and Green Spaces levy focused on property acquisition, not operations and maintenance.
  • We have a $267 major maintenance backlog that we have to fix.
  • The Citizens’ Advisory Committee and the Mayor recommend that we “Fix it First”, investing 62% of  new park money to care for what we have first.
  • Parks users want MORE services and MORE park facilities.  These cost money to maintain well.
  • Both the number of park jobs and the park budget have decreased over the years while the number of parks has increased.
  • State law limits the amount of money we can tax ourselves to improve our city.
  • A Seattle Park District could assess no more than 75 cents per $1000 of valuation.
  • A six year levy could address some major maintenance but not future investment needs.
  • Seattle Councilmembers would waive any right to a Park District Board salary increase.
  • All parks and facilities would continue to be owned by the City of Seattle.
  • New jobs and opportunities for training and advancement would be available for parks employees.
  • New investments in updated technology will help create an efficient, effective and sustainable park system.
  • Seattle Park District Agreements will be binding through contract and legislation.
  • The Seattle Park District will be subject to the same laws as the city council.
  • The Seattle Park District could be dissolved by a vote of the elected city councilmembers serving in their capacity as Park District Board members.

The Volunteer Park Conservatory invites guests year-’round.

A Park District is a legislative creation, authorized by the State.  If you want to see the entire law behind it, you can read more in Ch. 35.61 RCW.   What’s important to know is that a Park District would create a legal mechanism to fund parks and facilities.  The City of Seattle will continue to operate them.

The primary purpose of a Park District is to create a separate entity dedicated to the long term management, control, improvement, maintenance and acquisition of parks, boulevards, and recreational facilities.  Monies raised under this statutory authority can ONLY be used for parks.  Even in hard times, monies cannot be diverted for other city purposes.

Few places offer better places to meet friends coming and going than Greenlake.

We taxpayers have levied upon ourselves $24 million annually through the 2008 Parks and Green Spaces ballot measure to acquire new property for parks city-wide.  We acquired fourteen sites that have been land-banked, preserving the parcels and protecting them from development until we have money to turn them into desired neighborhood parks (see a map of those sites here).

The 2008 levy focused on reducing the “Park Gap”, so everyone in our city could have a park or open space to which they could readily walk.  We have made great progress on the acquisition front, but sadly, the six-year levy did not provide money for operations and maintenance. That was a calculated decision to keep the costs for voters low but in hind sight I believe was a mistake.  We need to focus more of our future investments on taking care of what we have through more operations and maintenance funds, not less.

The financial reality is that the costs to care for our growing parks system have increased while our Parks budget has decreased.  During the Great Recession, our Parks Department budget has been reduced 17%.  Nearly 100 Parks employees from maintenance workers to top administrators have been layed off and more have had their hours greatly reduced.   Parks has adopted national best practices to care for its 465 parks and 6200 acres of park land, but “doing more with less” has its limits.

Happy, healthy Delridge kids. Parks coordinate with our Seattle Public Schools to improve playgrounds.

The result? Since we do not have the deep funding mechanism for major capital replacements, many Parks facilities have been band-aided together with temporary and often expenses fixes.   Roofs have been patched and patched again instead of replaced.  Boilers, HVAC systems, electrical systems and irrigation networks have been patched with temporary fixes. Services have been cut back too such as Community Center hours and dog park clean ups.

Just like fixing an aging automobile, there’s a point where it costs more to fix than replace.  Similarly, if you have a leaky roof, you know your problems will become increasingly expensive if you don’t fix it right.  Our parks are facing similar problems.

We now face a $267 million back log in major maintenance on park facilities city-wide.  We‘ve been patching the problem areas, but have been procrastinating on the real solutions.

These issues pose a big problem, but –fortunately – it’s solvable.

Spray parks provide pure fun in the sun and are safe.

Our state does not have an income tax, so we rely primarily on sales tax, business and occupation taxes, real estate excise tax and property taxes.  Seattle, like all other cities in our state, is limited in how much property tax we can collect through levies.   In tough times and good times, we are limited to a total of $3.60 per $1,000 assessed value.  This limit governs both the regular levy of money for our general fund, plus any voted lid-lifts approved by the people.

Parks has tightened its belt considerably.  They have brought in experts to advise them on best practices, measured how long it takes to do things, and counted the people going into a community center to determine how many employees are needed where.

Yet, facility maintenance needs are significant and increasing, and the public’s appetite and demand for MORE community centers, MORE hours, MORE year-round ball fields, MORE dog parks, MORE pre-school facilities, MORE urban forest canopy, MORE restroom maintenance increases as well.  Parks surveys show that the people in Seattle love their parks, they want MORE of nearly everything, and we will soon find out if we voters are willing to pay for sustainable long term programs.

Skate Parks are wildly popular and bring together fabulous kids (and a few impressive adult skaters too!)

This is where the proposed Seattle Park District comes in.

Park Districts are not new.  Tacoma has had one for over 100 years.  Recently, many other cities in our state including Pullman, North Bend and Normandy Park have joined the club.  Their reasons: to protect their parks by assuring sustainable funding now and into the future.

Park Districts ARE a new concept to some, and I’ve heard many concerns about the proposed change. These claims would really worry me if they were true.

I appreciate the fact that reasonable minds differ and that parks supporters can reach different conclusions.  Here are my thoughts about what some folks have been saying and why I am seriously considering the Seattle Park District option as a solution to our growing maintenance needs and future vision:

URBAN MYTH:  The Park District Board can raise the tax rate to an unlimited amount without the approval of the voters.

FACT:  There’s no “blank check.”  State law limits the amount of money a Park District can levy to no more than 75 cents per $1000 of assessed value.  The Mayor has recommended a Park District levy of 42 cents.  The Council is considering that recommendation now.

Is anything more romantic than Golden Gardens Park at Sunset?

URBAN MYTH:  Councilmembers would raise their salaries by $10,000.

FACT:  As allowed by RCW 35.61.150, Councilmembers serving as Park Board members would waive their right to any additional fees or per diem.

URBAN MYTH:  Our parks can be sold off. 

FACT:  All Park property will be preserved as property of the City of Seattle.  It will be subject to Initiative 42; therefore it cannot be sold, transferred or changed from park use without a full value exchange for other park land.

URBAN MYTH: Employees won’t be city employees anymore.

FACT:  All current and new Parks employees will remain City employees with benefits.  The recommendations for the proposed Seattle Park District would create more jobs for qualified and trained workers, dedicated to maintaining our parks and facilities to an improved standard.

Westlake Park has been criticized for some bad behaviors. We have learned from NYC that we need to focus on women and their feeling of safety and security to make great parks.

 

URBAN MYTH: Park District decisions won’t be transparent, or accountable to the people they serve.

FACT.   For the following reasons the Seattle District will be every bit as accountable and MORE. Read on:

  • The Board of Parks Commissioners will continue to make recommendations to City Council, the Mayor, and the Parks Superintendent about policies for the planning, development and use of the City’s park and recreation facilities.

 

  • The elected Seattle City Councilmembers would serve as the park district governing board. Councilmembers can be unelected if we displease the voters.

 

  • An ongoing citizen’s oversight board will be selected to advise the Mayor, City Council and Parks Commissioners on spending, contracts, and Major Projects Challenge Fund for neighborhood-initiated projects.

 

  • Every effort will be made to select people to serve on the citizen’s oversight board with expertise in urban horticulture, landscape architecture, parks management, financial management, contract experience and more.  At least one person will be selected from every Council district.  The Community Oversight Committee would make recommendations about spending levels for the next six years and every six years thereafter consistent with our long term capital funding requirements.

 

  • Financial and performance experts located inside the City and external experts will be hired to oversee and measure parks’ program quality, major contracts, best practices, value engineering opportunities for Parks.  A dashboard will be established on Parks’ website so reports, regular updates will be readily available to the public.

 

  • The Community will stay closely involved through established organizations like the Magnuson Park Advisory Council and the Cheasty Park neighborhood group.

 

  • The Parks Department will include its employees in effective and efficient asset management planning.   Parks Department will commit to growing internal talent to allow for professional growth and smart department-wide succession plans.

 

  • The Parks Department will continue to build a culture of accountability.  Regular reports measuring asset management, program quality and success will be presented by the Park Superintendent with the Board of Park Commissioners, Citizen Oversight Board, the Mayor and the Park District Board.

 

  • If the Park District Board fails to do its job, voters have the ultimate say.  Councilmembers can be un-elected and replaced.

Our best friends have an interesting view.

 

URBAN MYTH:  We can keep fixing the old facilities and create a great park system.

FACTWe have community centers and major facilities in our 465 parks that need significant renovation. We have old boilers, failing HVAC, inefficient  florescent lights, aging electrical systems and much more that could be replaced with updated technology and save parks money.  By investing strategically, we can save water, save electricity, and save labor costs.  City wide, we want to run an efficient and effective park system.  This will require long term planning and long term funding.

Special Populations deserve the best we can offer.

URBAN MYTH:  We can solve all our problems with a higher levy.

FACT:  We have a $267 million backlog of major maintenance items as described above. Certain state initiatives have limited how much we can tax ourselves via levies. Should we choose another 6-year levy rather than the Seattle Park District, we would be limited to another round of short term investments.  We could address some of the major maintenance items, but could not complete the entire recommended major maintenance backlog in six years. This means we would procrastinate again, continuing the cycle of band-aid efforts.  Few of the visionary investments recommended by the Citizens Advisory Committee and the Mayor would be made.

URBAN MYTH:  Park Districts can’t be dissolved once created.

FACT:  The Park District Board can dissolve the District on its own motion.  State law also provides that 10% of the voters can call for its dissolution.

 

Soccer in the rain. Neighborhoods want more all weather turf fields across the city.

URBAN MYTH:  The decisions described above are non-binding.

FACT:  All of these elements described above will be addressed in a binding contract document called an Interlocal Agreement (ILA) and will be enacted into law.

The proposed ILA is a legally binding contract between two legally separate entities, the City of Seattle and the Seattle Park District.  Once it is passed and signed into law by the Mayor, the City Council –present or future — cannot change the agreement alone.  Any proposed change would be subject to the Mayor’s review and his veto power.

The ILA is attached to the ordinance submitted by the Mayor and is now subject to Council’s review and amendments.

If passed by the City Council and signed by the Mayor, the ordinance and attachments will become law.

Clean water, clean fun for Seward Park kids.

Here are links to background legislation and recommendations:

  • The Mayor’s ordinances and first draft of the ILA can be reviewed in their entirety in

C.B. 118055 – Proposed ordinance to place the question of whether to create the Seattle Park District on the August 2014 ballot

C.B. 118056 – Proposed ordinance authorizing the Mayor to sign an interlocal agreement between the City and the Seattle Park District between the City and the Seattle Park District

What happens next?  The Council is holding a public hearing on Monday, April 7, 6:00 p.m., in the City Council Chambers to consider the Mayor’s recommendations and to hear public input.   You are invited to join us and provide your thoughts and recommendations.

 

Funding our Parks: The Big Picture

 

We held our second meeting of the Select Committee on Parks Funding on Monday, March 17th. My council colleagues and I received extensive briefings from the co-chairs of the Parks Legacy Advisory Committee, Barbara Wright and Charlie Zaragoza, by Ben Noble and Mike Fong from the Mayor’s Office, Christopher Williams from Parks and Meg Moorehead and Norm Schwab from Council Central Staff.

The Parks Legacy Citizens’ Advisory Committee has been meeting for much of the past year, reviewing strategic information assembled by Parks as well as receiving public comment. Here is the Parks Legacy Citizens’ Advisory Committee’s (PLCAC) Final Report.

Seattle Parks provide space for everyone, irrespective of abilities.

The Mayor and staff reviewed the PLCAC’s recommendations, and in turn made recommendations to the Council which you can read here — Mayor Murray’s recommendation for funding.

Finally, you can read the an analysis from the City Council’s Central Staff describing the decisions the Council will make this spring.

Council formed the Select Committee on Parks Funding this year to make recommendations for a long term, financially sustainable plan for maintenance of our park system and improvement of programs and services.

I have been overseeing the strategic work undertaken by our Department of Parks and Recreation (DPR) these past four years, and have worked closely with the PLCAC in preparation for these recommendations.  I have briefed my Council colleagues as the PLCAC progressed.

My objectives have been to fourfold: Address the major maintenance backlog in our parks and community centers. Spruce up and repair the parks and community centers we have, increase open hours, and make sure facilities such as the restrooms are open and clean for all to use. Provide improved programming and services for parks users of all ages and abilities. Make sure our voters receive value and visible benefits for their investment, and that the approach to future expenditures is predictable, accountable, and transparent.

Seattle Parks provides programs for special populations that no one else offers.

As identified in the PLCAC’s findings, we have four major problems the City Parks Department needs to solve:

  1. Fix our major maintenance backlog first.
  2. Fund basic services like community centers, restrooms, and fields
  3. Address public desires and programs for all ages and abilities
  4. Leverage funds through new partnerships

At our March 17 meeting, Co-chairs Barbara Wright and Charlie Zaragoza described the PLCAC’s public process, the values upon which the Committee made its final recommendations and a prioritized list of investment initiatives to address the problems.  If you are interested in the many meetings, agendas, and materials reviewed by the PLCAC, please read about that Committee’s work here.

Carkeek Park is one of my favorites. A walk through the woods leads us right to the beach on Puget Sound.

The PLCAC recommended specific investment initiatives that concur with my objectives including 1) Fund Major Maintenance Backlog and Property Management, 2) Restore Community Center Operations,3) Increase Preventative Maintenance, 4) Save Our City Forests as well as 5) Improve recreation programs for older adults, teens, and people with disabilities.

DPR has a notebook-sized list of major maintenance projects that need attention. The backlog is estimated to be $267 million. In my opinion, fixing these first should be one prime objective, but they should not be the ONLY investments.

The PLCAC’s recommendations were reviewed and for the most part approved by the Mayor for transmittal to the Council’s Select Committee. City Budget Director Ben Noble and Acting Superintendent of DPR Christopher Williams spoke on behalf of Mayor Murray’s proposal.

The Executive proposes the creation of a Seattle Parks District with a six year spending plan with a prioritized list of investment initiatives. This is one possible way to sustainably operate and maintain our parks and facilities.

The Mayor recommends that 53% of our investments be directed toward major maintenance (big ticket items like roofs, boilers, electrical systems, swimming pool overhauls for example); 9% be directed toward ongoing maintenance of our existing parks and community centers; 10% be directed toward programs for adults, teens, toddlers, and special populations, and 25% of the money be dedicated to building for the future – completing parks that have been purchased and land banked for example.

Love these kids learning about rhodedendrons and our urban forests.

We will make our decision this spring, and as scheduled, will send a recommendation to the voters for the August 5,2014 ballot. We will continue our Council conversation on March 31 after the regular Council meeting and on Monday evening, April 7 in Council Chambers 6:00 p.m. for a public hearing. You are invited to both.

I am committed to a measure that brings great value and benefits to all our residents, and I want to make certain people in our city get WHAT THEY HAVE TOLD US THEY WANT.  UPDATED community centers and more community center hours. BETTER maintenance of restrooms system-wide, LONG TERM sustainable plans for basic parks maintenance, BETTER programming for seniors, ADDITIONAL dog parks, protected forests and open spaces.  And much more.

The recommendations I have seen so far address these needs. How we make these investments and how much we should investment will be the focus of the Council’s next meetings and my future blog posts. No matter how we answer those first two questions, I will require that any spending plan be predictable, transparent, and accountable to the voters.  We can do this by ordinance and by contract.

More to come.

 

 

Lockers: One Way to Help

You may have read this in The Stranger, but in case you haven’t, I wanted you to see a letter that Councilmember Harrell and I wrote. Thanks for reading — Sally

Imagine you have lost your job, your home, maybe your marriage or long term relationship. You now find yourself alone and homeless in Seattle. Imagine further that you have landed downtown and are trying to regain your footing.  You need housing and work. You’ve found emergency shelter at City Hall that keeps you dry at night, but you and those with whom you share hard mats on the cold floor are back on the street at 7:00 a.m.

You line up for food at various locations including Union Gospel Mission or under the freeway at Operation Sack Lunch.  Your mood is flat but things are looking up.  You have recently had a shower — possibly at the Urban Rest Stop or YWCA’s Angelines. And this morning you have a job interview thanks to Downtown Emergency Services Center’s Connections employment program.  You have cleaned up as much you can, yet you face one more hurdle: what to do with the few remaining belongings you have. You know if you leave your stuff unlocked or unattended it won’t be there when you return.

So you drag your possessions with you to your interview, on your back, in bags, whatever you have, stigmatizing you for sure as homeless. What can help you at this point?  A locker.

Portland, Santa Monica, New York City and Lisbon among many other cities, have helped people improve their lives by providing lockers downtown and in other neighborhoods. It’s not a new concept, but it is both workable and vital.  Not just for those who are hauling their belongings, but also for businesses, residents, and visitors who would like to visit clean parks and sidewalks. Seattle needs this too and that’s why we are exploring a system of lockers city wide.

Here are some small steps we can take toward restoring a sense of dignity and safety in Seattle:

  1. Like Lisbon, provide freestanding lockers outside.  Those who get the lockers must maintain regular contact with their case manager, keep the locker area clean, and agree not to store illegal substances or weapons.
  2. Like Berkeley, negotiate with a private storage company to make lockers available at fair prices.  Locker users must be in regular contact with a case manager and have a plan to get off the street.
  3. Like Madison, contract with human service providers to add lockers or protected storage areas where they offer showers or food.
  4. Like Sacramento, work with local churches and shop classes to build simple wooden lockers available across the city.

Will we face opposition?  Of course. Some will complain about public costs. Or fear terrorists. Or worry about the burden of watching someone else’s stuff. Some of these concerns are real, yet other cities have found ways to deal with the worries while providing something substantial that helps.  So can we.

 Over the next 100 days, we will investigate what has worked in other cities. We will investigate costs and solutions. We will work with the Mayor and our other partners to set a goal of adding 100 lockers in our city this year. We will write more about steps we can take as a city and region to become healthier, safer, and more welcoming for all. Some proposals will require long-term regional strategies to address both temporary shelter and moving more people toward permanent housing. Other proposals will help us obtain more funding from the Washington State or the federal government to address mental illness and dependency issues.

Yet more proposals will require a regional approach to add more supportive housing in all 39 cities in King County. Other cities must step up to help us care for those among us who need help. Seattle taxpayers should not be expected to carry more than our fair share. We will advocate for broad based police training in “harm reduction” strategies; and of course we will support King County Metro to add more transit countywide. There’s a long list.

We will also write about more actions that can be both meaningful and relatively quick. Working with the City Council, Mayor, King County Executive, non-profits, human service providers, labor, businesses, volunteers, and more, we can try many of these approaches, learning lessons from other cities and modifying as we go along.

Providing lockers is admittedly but one small tool to make our city a safer and more welcoming place. We are ready to get going so we can all get ahead. We welcome you on this journey.

–Sally Bagshaw and Bruce Harrell

Catching up with our Neighborhoods–Guest Blog Post

Councilmember Bagshaw’s Legislative assistant, Alberta Bleck, attended the Magnolia Queen Anne District Council meeting on January 13 in Bayview Manor. Alberta will be contributing her thoughts on this program and others on a semi-regular basis as a guest blogger for Councilmember Bagshaw’s office. If there are any topics you would like to see covered on this blog let us know!

On Monday, January 13 I had the pleasure of attending the monthly Magnolia Queen Anne District Council. The meeting, ably chaired by Lauren Balter, touched upon several important topics affecting the Magnolia and Queen Anne neighborhoods, including a pedestrian zone mapping project, the Parks Legacy Plan, the possible reorganization of District Councils, and several other announcements. A good portion of the meeting was devoted to a presentation on the Parks Legacy Plan and a potential parks funding ballot measure, a topic that has been on our minds for the past several weeks as we field numerous emails, letters, and phone calls on this subject.

Parks Legacy Plan Discussion

A view of Smith Cove from Kinnear Park in Queen Anne.

Deputy Superintendent of Parks Eric Friedli and Former Parks Deputy Superintendent Ken Bounds provided the group background on the Parks Department’s financial shortfalls, which lie in the areas of operations and management. Funding cuts to Parks in the General Fund, and well as the lack of levy money allocated to addressing operations has left Seattle’s parks with a 267 million dollar deferred maintenance backlog. Several proposals, from a short-term levy to a longer-term solution, have been put forward to address the gap. These ideas included the concept of a Metropolitan Parks District (MPD). The MPD has the advantage of providing a stable source of parks funding, something that has not been achieved with the short-term levies that have funded parks in the past. Additionally, levies have limits on how much they can raise in revenue, while the MPD would have the potential to raise up to 54 million dollars for parks in the future.

This is a topic that both the Parks Legacy Citizens’ Advisory Committee (PLCAC) and Councilmember Bagshaw will investigate in discussions about a possible ballot measure funding Seattle’s parks. No decisions will be made until the PLCAC has submitted their final recommendations, which the Council will weigh heavily in their considerations.

Parks funding will be examined in detail by a Select Committee chaired by Councilmember Bagshaw this year. The first meeting of 2014 Select Committee on Parks Funding was held on Monday, January 27th, and future Committee meetings will take place on Mondays after full council, with two public meetings in the evening (for a detailed schedule of the Select Committee on Parks Funding, please follow this link: http://www.seattle.gov/council/com_assign.htm#parksfunding). These Committee meetings will be an excellent chance for the City Council to hear further input on Parks priorities and funding mechanisms.

How do parks influence your day-to-day life as a Seattle resident? What uses should be prioritized? Join us in our efforts to make parks serve our city effectively and equitably. Call, email, or contact the Bagshaw Office via social media to express your thoughts on an issue that will affect our city for generations to come.