By Erica C. Barnett
Standing next to a busy playground at Rainier Playfield in Columbia City on Wednesday morning, Mayor Bruce Harrell announced a new “phase two” plan for the Seattle Parks District that will nearly double the amount homeowners and renters pay to fund parks and community centers across Seattle.
Voters authorized the city council to pass a property tax levy of up to 75 cents per thousand dollars of home valuation in 2014; Harrell’s proposal would nearly double that amount to 38 cents per thousand dollars, for an average annual cost of just over $360. That’s more than twice the current average cost of $155 because homeowners’ property values keep going up.
The levy has to be approved by the parks district board, which is made up of the entire city council.
Peppering his comments with anecdotes about playing and coaching baseball in the field behind him, Harrell stressed the public safety aspects of his plan, which includes $3.6 million to expand city’s Park Ranger program, a largely moribund anti-crime effort that started downtown in 2008, from two rangers to 28. The plan, which would raise $115 million a year, would also fund winterization to allow more parks restrooms to stay open all year ($580,000); add five new staffers to respond to graffiti and vandalism ($600,000); add staff on nights and weekends to increase parks maintenance (“especially of restrooms,” according to a fact sheet on the plan); and open 10 more acres of parks while doing major maintenance at several community centers.
Harrell focused on the need to keep parks “open and accessible to the public for their intended use,” rather than “closed or impacted by unauthorized encampments,” and praised the Unified Care Team, which includes the Parks and Recreation workers who remove encampments from parks, for their work. “We don’t sweep. We treat and we house,” Harrell said.
As we’ve noted before, this statement is inaccurate on several levels: When the city removes encampments, it almost never refers people directly to housing, and of the people who accept referrals to temporary shelter (instead of simply moving along), fewer than half ever show up to shelter for a single night. The city also doesn’t directly provide or fund drug or mental health treatment.
Still, an increase in restroom hours and better restroom maintenance will inevitably help homeless parks users as well as those who are housed. The city closed many public restrooms in parks and community centers during the pandemic, and many remained closed after 2020, forcing people who live in public to relieve themselves in public and contributing to outbreaks of preventable infectious diseases like shigella because closed restrooms mean people can’t wash their hands. Former mayor Jenny Durkan subsequently failed to approve and open fully funded “street sinks,” raising endless objections about placement, vegetation, water supply, and graywater disposal—and leaving unsheltered people (and everybody else) with few options to clean their hands.
The parks board will meet and take public comment on Harrell’s proposal next Wednesday.