It’s easy to take city parks for granted. We walk by them everyday, and take them as just another part of our neighborhood, like sidewalks and storefronts. In truth, it takes tens of millions of dollars every year to make and maintain Seattle’s parks and the many parks-related programs that take place each month. Today, the funding for parks in Seattle comes directly from the city’s general fund and fees associated with attractions like Woodland Park Zoo, but we’re likely to see an alternative funding and management system come to the August 2014 primary ballot.
A different way to manage parks in the state of Washington is known as the Metropolitan Parks District system. Currently, 14 MPDs exist in the state as outlined in chapter 35.61 of the Revised Code of Washington. The nearest MPD to Seattle includes all of Tacoma and some of its surrounding territory. MPDs function similarly to organizations like the Port of Seattle, working as stand-alone entities funded by tax money with close ties to the local City Council. Don Harper of the Queen Anne Community Council visited the Capitol Hill Community Council on March 20 to discuss Seattle’s own potential MPD.
“Since about 1998, within the parks system, the City Council and the mayor have been cutting the maintenance budget of parks. Amazingly enough, as the maintenance budget gets cut, you had almost $400 million spent on parks improvement and on new parks,” Harper said. Harper considers himself an opponent of the MPD system for Seattle, but believes that the current funding structure has fallen short on maintenance needs.
Proponents of the MPD structure point to greater and more stable funding the system provides compared to the current management by the Seattle Department of Parks and Recreation. Parks receives a majority of its yearly operating budget from the city’s general fund, taking one of the larger pieces thereof. Roughly a third of the general fund goes to Parks, with only major infrastructural elements like the Seattle Police Department and the Seattle Department of Transportation receiving a larger part. Still, Park’s budget has declined consistently over the past several years, resulting in a reported $270 million backlog of maintenance projects the department simply doesn’t have enough money to address.
When Seattle parks require build-outs or maintenance that exceed the department’s budget, the issue tends to go to ballot measure levies. Historically, Seattle voters have always passed parks levies, slightly raising property taxes for short periods of time, and using that money to address specific needs. Other city departments can also use the levy system to fund special projects, but there is a limit of just over $90 million in total levy money available each year across all departments. Parks has taken up approximately $40 million of that limit, putting it in competition with levies for housing, transit, and other major projects.
A Seattle MPD would also be able to use levies for special projects, but it would no longer depend on the general fund for operating costs. Instead, our MPD would institute as many as two, persistent property taxes, one at 50 cents and another at 25 cents per every $1,000 of property value, to be voted on separately. In exchange for the funding stability, the MPD would not have to bring projects to the ballot and would be able to buy, sell, and lease new land freely.
Under the MPD, all of Seattle’s current parks would remain safe because of an initiative known colloquially as Ordinance 42. In short, O-42 requires any transfer of park property to include a full replacement of that property in area, accessibility and function within the same neighborhood. As Harper explained it,
“For example, you could sell Cal Anderson Park, yet you have to replace it with the same or better in the same community. You can’t sell this park and then go build the waterfront park. You would have to find another piece of land like this with the ball fields and the community center and the parks and the fountain and the whole thing.”
Opponents of establishing a Seattle MPD are wary of relinquishing so much voter control over the funding and accountability of the city’s parks. Once established, a Washington MPD cannot be dissolved by anyone except its own Board of Commissioners, when so prompted by the city government or a petition by 10 percent of voters. Under the current discussion of Seattle’s potential MPD, the Seattle City Council would be the Board of Commissioners.
A full proposal for Seattle’s Metropolitan Parks District is expected some time in the next month. Once a proposal has been drafted, a ballot measure will likely be submitted for the August primary.