Seattle parks funding headed to August ballot

SEATTLE - City leaders are pushing for a permanent fix to the problem of maintaining and expanding the park system, but some worry the solution headed to the ballot could be like handing the city a blank check.

The Seattle City Council, on an 8-0 vote, approved a special parks district with independent taxing authority that's destined for voters on the August ballot.

Dan Johnson, a division director for Seattle Parks and Recreation, says people use parks facilities every day year round, but his department lacks the funds for basic upkeep, and the backlog of maintenance projects keeps growing.

"We're running our assets to failure in many cases," Johnson said. "We've been patching and patching and patching and what's really needed here is a capital infusion."

Councilmembers say the creation of a parks district could bring more property tax revenue than the levy that's currently in place. It's also considered a more stable source over time, but the plan drew criticism from even longtime parks supporters.

"I'd like you to vote against the metropolitan parks district and continue the additional funding of parks by the use of levies," said Don Harper, a former parks levy oversight committee member who opposes a metropolitan parks district.

Unlike levies, a parks district would not expire and city council members would serve as its governing board. There are provisions for citizen oversight, but some still feel it's like handing parks a blank check.

"The folk out there are happy with the levy process, and they are afraid that's going to be upset," said Bruce Carter, who also spoke against the plan at the council hearing.

Parks workers say the current levy can't cover the maintenance backlog - like broken elevators and cracked pool bottoms - let alone provide for park expansion.

"We'd like to be able to do as good a job as we can," Johnson said.

As proposed, the parks district would raise $48 million a year through a property tax assessment. That would cost the owner of a $400,000 home about $148 a year.

This will likely be the only measure on the August 5th ballot asking Seattle voters for more money. However, the November election could have a property tax levy for pre-schools, a possible levy for Metro buses and maybe even competing measures for a $15 minimum wage.