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July 10, 2014 at 6:04 AM

A ‘no’ vote on Prop. 1 will not destroy Seattle parks

A bicyclist rides around the north end of Green Lake Park early on a fall morning. (Ellen M. Banner / The Seattle Times)

What happens if voters don’t pass Proposition 1 on the Aug. 5 ballot? Contrary to supporters’ claims, Seattle parks won’t be doomed. Citizens might even get a chance to vote on a better measure in a future election.

Parks enthusiasts (myself included) shouldn’t be bamboozled into thinking the formation of a metropolitan park district within city limits – operated and led by the Seattle City Council — is the only way to fix a daunting $270 million maintenance backlog.

As The Seattle Times makes clear in Wednesday’s editorial, parks definitely deserve some TLC. But the board joins the League of Women Voters of Seattle-King County and the pro-parks/anti-Prop. 1 citizen group Our Parks Forever in opposing the proposed taxing authority outlined in Prop. 1.

Preserving parks is critical to quality of life and public health. The mayor and council members are understandably eager to create dedicated parks funding and free up room in limited levy capacity for other worthy programs, such as universal preschool. But they have failed to make a case for a Seattle Park District that gives elected officials so much additional, unfettered power to tax and spend.

By rejecting Proposition 1, voters send a strong message to city leadership: We love parks, but return with a levy or alternate measure that prioritizes park needs, holds officials more accountable and preserves citizen participation.

Three questions to keep in mind before you check off that ballot:

1. If everyone loves parks and levies pass so easily, what’s the big deal with forming a metropolitan park district?

Mayor Ed Murray has posted some photos of dank conditions at various parks around the city. The Woodland Park Zoo has pictures of cute kids and cuddly animals asking for support. Seattle Parks for All calls for  the community to invest in parks again. At issue is not whether parks need stable funding (they obviously do), it’s how we do it. Once voters create a metropolitan park district, it would be irreversible unless 10 percent of voters petition the district to dissolve itself. Carol Fisher of the Our Parks Forever group asks, “How many politicians in this world would vote themselves out of a position and power and the ability to collect taxes? Come on, let’s be real.”

2. Are voters ready to give the current and future city councils so much power and taxing authority? 

Even if voters like and trust able-minded council members such as Sally Bagshaw on parks issues, will they feel the same about her successor? Because the language in Prop. 1 would make it a whole lot easier for future councils to do what they want with taxpayer money without voter approval.

3. Is urgent action really necessary? 

Fixing parks is an urgent matter, but keep in mind Prop. 1 would not replace leaky roofs or boilers any faster than if voters were to approve an alternate measure next year.

Prop. 1 is a proposed replacement for the 2008 Parks and Green Spaces Levy that expires at the end of 2014. In the Prop. 1 spending plan, 2015 would be a ramp-up year and revenue would not be collected until 2016. The District would take out a $10 million loan to operate in 2015, in addition to about $89 million in general fund dollars. This seems to suggest there’s time to put another measure before voters.

Seattle Parks and Recreation would not go broke if Prop. 1 failed, although its leadership would likely have to prioritize projects.

4. If voters don’t pass Prop. 1, what happens next?

After speaking to numerous sources, here’s a rough list of ideas to move the conversation forward.

  • An independent audit of the parks department’s finances and performance would help citizens understand how their dollars have been spent all these years, and how those funds could be invested more wisely in the future. It might even make the formation of a metropolitan park district more palatable.
  • City leaders might consider drafting a district proposal that includes stronger options for citizens to hold the district accountable for its decisions. As proposed in Prop. 1, a 15-member citizens oversight committee would be confirmed by the city council. This model does not ensure independence and drowns out the voice of citizens who are used to having some say in how their money is spent every six years. A future measure might include a binding vote every few years.
  • The deadline to put a levy measure on the November ballot is Aug. 5, but city officials could offer a levy measure in a special election as early as next February. Even if it’s a stopgap measure dedicated to maintenance projects, it’s better than giving the City Council so much unchecked taxing authority.
  • John Fox of the Seattle Displacement Coalition suggests considering alternative funding sources, including developer impact fees.

In a Dec. 16, 2013 Seattle Times news story, Mayor Ed Murray said he is not “wedded” to creating a metropolitan park district. “Ultimately my goal is not getting my funding source passed, it’s getting our parks funded,” he is quoted as saying at the time.

How do you think the city should fund its beloved parks system and address the growing backlog of maintenance problems? Is general fund money enough? Or do you support a park district? Another levy? Share your thoughts in the forum below. We’ll highlight some answers in an upcoming blog post. Real names, phone numbers and addresses are required. Contact information is just for verification purposes and not for publication.

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Comments | Topics: august primary, metropolitan park district, prop 1

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