What You Always Wanted to Know about the Parks Department (but were afraid to ask)

Seattle’s Department of Parks and Recreation is looking at almost $300M of deferred maintenance and finds that its current operating and capital budgets fall far short of what is needed to sustain the system. Meanwhile they face seemingly endless demands for more sports fields, additional community center hours, extra zoo and aquarium funding, increased seniors programming, and far more grounds tending. And these are just a few of the goodies on the public’s Wish List.

Working with the Seattle Parks Foundation, the Department is seeking a politically viable solution. A Parks Legacy Plan is being developed, and a citizens advisory committee has been formed to advise on the issue. Options on the table include new parks levies or the more controversial Metropolitan Park District (MPD), which possibly could remove the Parks department from mayoral oversight (with City Council acting as its Board of Directors). An MPD could set its own dedicated property tax rates.

The current situation raises a lot of issues, questions and concerns:

  • For the past four years the department has lacked permanent management structure. Since the resignation (some say forced) of Tim Gallagher in April 2010 (himself an outside hire brought in to replace Ken Bounds), the Department has relied upon interim appointments at the top. Christopher Williams has served as Acting Superintendent since April 2010, with long-time financial and entrepreneurial guru, Eric Friedli, as his Acting Deputy Superintendent. The City Charter requires initial confirmation of the Parks Superintendent with reconfirmation to occur every four years. As Acting Superintendent, Christopher Williams did not require confirmation. Yet soon he will have served four years. Is he is now due for reconfirmation?
  • On the question of inadequate revenue, the Parks budget for 2014 is $172M ($135M operations, adding 23 new FTEs; and $27M capital budget). More than a few citizens are unhappy with the opacity of the budget and the high number of top-level staff earning top dollar. The City Neighborhood Council has called for an audit. Is the Department managed according to national best practices? Would management which incorporated LEAN principles help trim the fat and also contribute to greater public trust?
  • Has the Department been too quick to enter into “public-private partnerships” in which the City, the public partner, assumes all the risk, while the private partner reaps all the reward? Certainly the “saga” of Building 11 at the long-troubled Magnuson Park indicates a misplaced enthusiasm for private partners which ended up costing the City a $7.5M cash settlement and untold legal and staff hours. Essentially the City had to “buy back” a building it already owned from the private partner “investors” who had done nothing more that provide bridge financing that never materialized.
  • Then there’s the “Inconvenient Public”: Is the Department a bit deaf when it comes to public input? Zip lines at Lincoln Park? The Zoo parking brouhaha which may have helped force out former Superintendent Ken Bounds? And now more millions of dollars for zoo parking lots? Parks may be doing better now and giving more than lip service to citizen participation, but is there an underlying mind-set that views the public as a necessary inconvenience, to be worked around?
  • The Parks Department has upgraded its maintenance equipment to be more efficient over the last few years but has severely cut maintenance staff. Unfortunately, not all maintenance is pertinent to machine operations. The pruning of trees, painting of buildings, plumbing of facilities and irrigation, and care of landscape beds all require labor-intense work. But, the labor force has been cut back across the board even as trees continue to decay, park land and facilities are added, and landscape beds continue to be overrun with invasive plants.
  • What about volunteers? Volunteer hours in the Green Seattle Partnership program have declined by 10% each year for the last two years. Is this program suffering from the Sisyphean task of fighting invasive species’ relentless assault on our parks and natural areas?
  • What will be the role and input of our new Mayor, Ed Murray? Will “The Collaborator” try to put his mark on the Parks Department? What will be the role of the Mayor’s husband, Michael Shiosaki, already one of five top staff in the department? Will their “pillow talk” undercut the authority and effectiveness of any Superintendent, whether that person is Mr. Williams, or someone new? Is this the right time to grant the department increased distance from public scrutiny and to give it its own taxing capability? Seattle property owners would bear the price tag for this.
  • Has the Parks Department catered too much the desires of the sports fields users to the detriment of its own budget? A City Council Legislative Study done by Bill Alves in 2004 indicated that of major US cities, Seattle reined Number 1 in the number of public ball fields per resident. This was supported more recently by a Trust for Public Lands study published in 2012 using 2010 data. Ball fields are very expensive to install, and very expensive to maintain, and tend to be rented out to private sports groups. For the most part they are not available for drop-in public use. And now there is the issue now of mountain bike trails in the undeveloped greenbelts. How much does “Rec” control “Parks”?
  • Are the major Seattle parks – Magnuson, Discovery, Seward and Lincoln – “regional parks” as is often claimed when proposing some expensive recreation or rebuilding effort? If these parks are being designed to attract users from all over Puget Sound, why should the levies or increased property taxes of a Metropolitan Parks District fall solely on the shoulders of Seattle residents and homeowners?
  • Does the Seattle Parks Foundation play an out-sized role in Parks affairs, relative to its financial contribution? Over the past few years it has donated as little as $350K annually, or about 0.2% percent of the total Parks budget. Is this organization paid undue deference? What are their goals?
  • Park maintenance is on the bottom of City Council and Mayoral priorities. The City’s General Fund has been strapped by the pressures of inflation, growing urban needs, and by Eyman tax initiatives. The Mayor and City Council would rather spend scarce resources on social services, police, fire, homeless programs, youth and preschool programs and library open hours before fully funding parks. And perhaps rightly so. But if you had to cut to provide more for Parks, where would you cut? If you had to obtain alternative funding for Parks, how would you do it?
  • The Parks Department manages 6,200 acres – approximately 11% of Seattle’s total land area. Will our park system grow as our population increases? And if so, how? Managing this large of a parks system is a huge job. Do citizens err in focusing only on problems and shortfalls? Are we failing to recognize all that the Department does so well?

Join us for a lively panel discussion with some of the people who just may be able to help answer these questions. We are pleased to have Eric Friedli, Acting Deputy Director of Parks, Ben Noble, Director, City Council Central Staff, Yazmin Mehdi, Parks Board Member, and Donna Hartmann-Miller, Citizen Parks Activist.

[by Gail Chiarello, Dec 8, 2013]

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