Seattle wants to be a ‘world class city’ with projects such as a billion dollar waterfront park and universal preschool, but also needs to sustain our aging infrastructure and meet other deferred City obligations. Seattle is in a budget crisis, but no one will say that. Our property tax and levies have a “lid” (and an additional self-imposed buffer) and we are confounded by Eyman anti-tax initiatives and a dependence on cyclical and somewhat unpredictable sales tax and real estate development revenue streams. We require more revenue than our limited repertoire of funding mechanisms can provide and this has left us in an arguably untenable situation despite the current economic upswing.
An idea considered years ago as a means to provide “stable funding” to the Parks Department that is back with far more momentum is the creation of a Metropolitan Parks District (MPD). Former Parks Superintendent Ken Bounds and the Seattle Parks Foundation has long been on a quest for Seattle to create this State authorized taxing authority as the means to provide a steady revenue stream directly to the Parks Department outside of (and in addition to) the General Fund which is subject to the City’s overall levy lid. As a separate and independent taxing authority, it would assess a separate property tax, as does, for example, the Port of Seattle.
Last year Councilmember Sally Bagshaw quickly appointed a Parks Legacy Plan Citizens Advisory Committee to evaluate the viability of parks funding via ongoing property tax levies (as Seattle has done for well over a century) or via an MPD. And after meeting for 9 months it arrived at what many feel was the preordained conclusion: the MPD is the only way to fund parks and its backlog of projects (and a slew of needs newly identified by the committee, such as $3.8M per year for maintenance of the future downtown waterfront park).
The Mayor and Council quickly adopted the MPD “recommendation” (even though 80% of the citizens attending the Committee’s public meetings favored the continued use of levies) and have placed the MPD on the August primary ballot. An MPD can only be formed by a vote of the people but the voters cannot terminate an MPD once formed.
The main reason advanced for the MPD is to increase property tax revenues dedicated to the Parks Department that are not subject to the City’s levy lid. This proposed funding mechanism if voted in would initially assess property taxes at the rate of $0.33 per $1,000 of assessed value – almost double the amount collected by the current parks levy expiring at the end of this year. Parks would still require nearly $90M in funding from the general fund and other existing revenue sources to keep it operating.
But the Metropolitan Park District, now branded as the Seattle Park District (SPD), under the direction of its board (in our case the City Council acting ex officio) could levy taxes up to $0.75 per $1,000 of assessed value without any further vote of the people (an amount four times the current levy). What would keep Council from just supplanting the general fund dollars for Parks with this additional tax? What will make the ex officio Council not exert broader powers granted the MPD by State law?
In response to concerns about the lack of accountability and other legal issues, Council and the Mayor enacted legislation to govern the scope of the SPD via an Interlocal Agreement (ILA).
The ILA calls for 1) a “Community Oversight Committee” (with members selected by City Council and a Chair appointed by the Parks Superintendent) to advise the City and MPD, 2) fixed General Fund funding for the Parks Department, and 3) continued use of the Parks Department to run all of the parks functions as they do today. However the ILA, as legislation, is easily revocable and changed with 180 days notice, and some even question the authority it exerts.
The Mayor could not veto a decision of the City Council acting as the SPD board, nor can voters subject SPD decisions to a referendum vote. Nor does Seattle’s initiative process apply to the Park District.
So the low turnout, low information primary ballot is the battleground for the formation of the MPD. Already the ballot title put forward by Council has been legally challenged and changed and just last week the SEEC ruled the language in the voter’s guide must more accurately reflect what the SPD is and how it would operate.
The pro-MPD campaign has already raised $150K, with $75K coming from the Parks Foundation, and $50K from the Zoo and $5K each from the Aquarium and the Associated Recreation Council (themselves beneficiaries of additional Parks funding), with the vast majority of the balance coming from Parks Foundation and Olympic Sculpture Park board and donors.
Is a Metropolitan Park District a harmless administrative change that would secure critical funding as “the only way” to save Parks, or is it a stealth campaign meant to remove citizen control over how the Parks department is run and how its money is spent thereby securing funding for high profile entities such as the Aquarium, the Zoo, and the future downtown waterfront park?
At our regular SNC breakfast meeting this Saturday, June 14, we will have four guest speakers discussing this issue, two urging a vote “For” the ballot measure and two urging a vote “Against”.
Arguing “For” the MPD will be Seattle City Councilmember Tom Rasmussen. Tom has been on City Council for 10 years, and prior to that was the long-time aide to Councilmember Jeanette Williams. Also speaking for the MPD will be Thatcher Bailey, Executive Director of the Seattle Parks Foundation and member of the Parks Legacy Plan Citizen Advisory Committee.
Arguing “Against” the MPD will be Toby Thaler, environmental lawyer and with the Fremont Neighborhood Council. Also speaking against will be Carol Fisher, co-chair of Our Parks Forever, the campaign committee working against the SPD proposal. Carol, a former regulatory auditor, is President of the Lifelong Recreation Advisory Council, which is part of the Associated Recreation Council, one of the Parks Department’s non-profit partners.
(last December the SNC explored the funding crisis at the Parks Department)
[by Bill Bradburd,June 9, 2014]