By Erica C. Barnett
The city council, meeting as the board of the Metropolitan Parks District, raised questions last Friday about a plan to increase expand funding for the district by about $50 million, nearly doubling the size of the tax and funding more than $30 million in new projects and initiatives, plus funding for “pre-commitments” that the city promised in the past but has not delivered, including the Green Lake Community Center.
Currently, the median homeowner in Seattle pays about $155 a year toward the levy; the increase the city is considering would raise that to $307 a year, an amount the city expects to rise to $411 by 2028, assuming a 4 percent annual inflation rate. In addition to inflation, the median cost to taxpayers is influenced by home prices, which have continued to skyrocket in recent years.
The decision to raise park district taxes, and by how much, rests entirely in the hands of Mayor Bruce Harrell (whose proposal this is) and the council, acting as the parks district board. (For ease of understanding, I’m going to refer to the Metropolitan Parks District board as the council from now on, since the membership is the same) That’s because of the way the parks district is structured. In 2014, voters approved the creation of the parks district to fund park programming above and beyond what the city’s previous voter-approved levy was authorized to fund—for example, operating programs and maintaining parks and community centers. The 2014 measure capped parks district spending at 75 cents per $1,000 of property valuation—anything above that amount, and the MPD board would have to send the plan to voters.
The increase the council is considering is still less than the 75-cent cap, but it does represent a significant property tax hike at a time when many homeowners (and renters, to whom property taxes get passed along) are still recovering from the impact of the pandemic—and on the brink of a potential recession.
It was that potential recession park district planners had in mind, interim Seattle Parks director Christopher Williams told the council Friday, when they proposed including $10 million in ongoing annual funding for parks projects that would ordinarily be funded by the city’s general fund. The city has been supplanting its parks budget with $10 million in levy funds during the pandemic, but this situation was supposed to be temporary; the parks district was created, in fact, specifically to add to existing parks funding, not to pay for ongoing needs.
Explaining the proposal to continue shoring up the parks budget with levy dollars, Williams said the intent was “to anticipate, I think, the situation the city could be in in 2023 and how the park district could provide post COVID relief to the city’s general fund situation,” Williams said. The city is facing an estimated $117 million budget shortfall next year, followed by diminishing but still significant shortfalls for several years after that.
“I am a skeptic of supplementation through the Metropolitan Park District, and that is a no way to say that we don’t have a challenging looming budget cycle,” Councilmember Andrew Lewis, the president of the MPD board, said. “I do think we need to be cognizant of the fact that …crises will come, and we need to be really careful of the precedent we set on when we we do and don’t dip into the MPD to help balance the general fund situation.”
During its first six-year cycle, which ended in 2020, the parks district paid for major maintenance, cleaning, and repairs at parks, community centers, and pools and expanded parks programming across the city. The pandemic stalled work on the next six-year “cycle” of the levy, and contributed to complaints parks users expressed in a survey conducted late last year.
The Seattle Times recently seized on this survey as proof the parks district (whose creation the paper opposed vehemently) should go “back to basics” and address things like graffiti and trash. (The headline of their breathless editorial, surely the first in a long series predictably decrying any tax increase: “Seattle parks maintenance has gone down the toilet.”) In reality, a closer look at the survey shows that the people who complained that Seattle’s parks are unsafe and unclean were overwhelmingly white, older, wealthy homeowners concentrated in North Seattle; south of the Ship Canal and downtown, in the city’s more economically and racially diverse areas, people were generally happy with the state of their neighborhood parks.
The council, meeting as the parks district board, will have a long time to hash out both the details of the proposed parks levy and the items it will fund. Currently, the proposal from the mayor’s office includes renovations to restrooms and increased restroom maintenance; green upgrades, grants to neighborhood groups, and programs in underserved communities; and capital improvements and renovations at sports facilities like the Amy Yee Tennis Center and community centers like the one at Green Lake, which was in line for replacement but is now slated to get another round of renovations instead.
The proposal also includes 16 new dedicated courts for pickleball, some kind of mini-tennis thing that is currently having a moment.
The parks district will host a public hearing on the proposal on July 14, and plans to vote on a spending plan by mid-September.