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.
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.
- 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
URBAN MYTH: We can keep fixing the old facilities and create a great park system.
FACT: We 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.
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.
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.
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
- Here’s a link to the FAQ: Frequently Asked Questions about the Metropolitan Park District
- Information about the history and discussions of the Legacy Committee’s Citizens Advisory Group and their recommendations can be read here: Parks Legacy Citizens’ Advisory Committee (PLCAC)
- Specific categories of proposed investments for major maintenance, ongoing maintenance for parks and facilities, programs for people, and opportunities for the future can be read in the Mayor’s Recommendation on Parks Investment Initiatives and the Mayor’s Investment Initiatives Background Documents.
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.