Municipal League of King County
Recommendation on Proposition 1—Creation of a Seattle Metropolitan Park District
August 5, 2014 Primary Ballot
Summary of Measure
If approved, City of Seattle Proposition 1 would create a metropolitan park district, called the Seattle Park District (the “District”), to provide ongoing funding to maintain, operate and improve parks, community centers, pools, and other recreation facilities and programs. The District would have the same boundaries as The City of Seattle and be governed by a board composed of the Seattle City Councilmembers. The District could exercise all the powers granted by state law in RCW chapter 35.61. Among other powers, the District could levy an annual property tax, up to $0.75 per thousand dollars of assessed value (or $330 per year on a $440,000 home), to raise revenues to provide ongoing funding to maintain, operate and improve parks, community centers, pools, and other recreation facilities and programs. The District could levy additional property tax above the current “lid” restrictions that state law impose on the City. The District could be dissolved or have its actions reversed by its governing body (the City Council) or a change in state law, but not by local initiative.
When the City placed this measure on the ballot, the Mayor and the Council also approved an ordinance that authorized the Mayor to sign an interlocal agreement with the District should its creation be approved by the voters. Under the proposed interlocal agreement, the City would maintain its current general fund support of the Seattle park system and the District would supplement City funding by imposing a property tax of approximately $47.9 million per year for the first six years of the District’s operation. That would be $0.33 per thousand dollars of assessed value or $145 per year for an average home with a value of $440,000. This is approximately $4 more per month than under the expiring parks levy.
Under the proposed interlocal agreement, the City would retain ownership of all parks property and the District would not hire its own staff. The interlocal agreement, if adopted, could be amended or terminated in the future by the City and/or the District.
Arguments FOR the Measure
• The current parks levy is expiring. Funding parks through levies does not provide a stable, long-term source for operations, maintenance, rehabilitation, and repair of City parks. By contrast, the District would provide a stable, dedicated funding source for parks.
• From 1999 to 2010, the City provided $8.2 million dollars to pay for the costs of adding new facilities, while cutting the Parks Department’s basic budget by $13.8 million. Funding for major maintenance declined significantly during the most recent recession, from over $20 million per biennium to $11 million. The District would provide a revenue source to address this decline in funding.
• Daily maintenance has been reduced at virtually every park and community center. The Parks Department currently faces a $267 million maintenance backlog. The existing parks levy was directed primarily to capital expenditures, leaving insufficient funding for basic maintenance. The last levy that included funds to pay for operating and maintenance costs associated with levy funding projects passed in 2000 and expired in 2008.
• In the absence of a dedicated funding source for operations and maintenance for parks, these needs must be met through the City’s operating budget. Competition for resources within that budget process has become more intense in recent years for several reasons, including (a) constraints on the City’s ability to raise revenues under state law; (b) caps on revenue increases imposed by state voter initiatives; (c) the City taking on new responsibilities as federal and state resources diminish for needs such as housing and transportation.
• Community centers are inadequately funded. This has resulted in a “pay to play” dynamic, in which local neighborhoods with more resources are able to fund, through user fees and other support, more programming and longer operating hours than neighborhoods with fewer resources.
• The City will continue to provide funding for parks out of its general operating budget. During the first six years of the District’s operation, additional property taxes will cost the owner of a $400,000 home only about $4 a month more than the expiring parks levy.
• The District would enter into an interlocal agreement with the City that would provide clear direction as to how the District will spend revenue and create an Oversight Committee to ensure compliance with approved expenditures.
• Proposition 1 has been endorsed by the Mayor and entire City Council as well as by many other elected officials and community organizations.
Arguments AGAINST the Measure
• The existing levy system has worked. Seattle residents have a history of collaboration with leadership that identifies priorities and places levies on the ballot. Levies hold the City Council accountable to voters and fund parks and programs by requiring periodic votes to approve the City’s proposed parks expenditures.
• Proposition 1 is not merely a funding mechanism for parks. Proposition 1 gives parks to a new, independent, permanent taxing district that would take over City parks. Citizens could not dissolve the District by a vote, because the District is a completely separate governmental entity, similar to a school board. As a result, the District would not be accountable to the people of Seattle.
• The District would not have an independent Board. The City Council would control the District.
• The District would fundamentally change the oversight relationship between the Parks Department, the Mayor, and the City Council. Proposition 1 raises separation of powers concerns because it would grant the City Council administrative authority over the City’s parks.
• The District could raise property taxes up to 75 cents per $1,000 of valuation without a public vote.
• Under state law, the District could sell, commercialize and privatize park assets, although the interlocal agreement provides that the District will not exercise condemnation powers within City limits.
• The interlocal agreement proposes an Oversight Committee, but this Committee could review only an annual report prepared by the Parks Department for the District and the City. The Oversight Committee could not perform or commission a full performance and/or financial audit.
• The interlocal agreement proposed as part of the ballot measure amounts to a contract between the City Council and itself, because the City Council would sign the Agreement with the District, which is made up of the City Councilmembers. As a result, the City Council could vote to change the terms of interlocal agreement at any time, or terminate it altogether.
Recommendation and Rationale
The Municipal League recommends voting YES on Proposition 1.
The Seattle parks system is a critically important city service and valuable neighborhood asset. The current parks levy is expiring. There is widespread agreement that the City faces a significant maintenance backlog because of reduced funding for parks created by increased competition for scarce General Fund dollars. The Municipal League believes that establishing a sustainable funding source for parks is preferable to the existing method of using periodic levies that have emphasized capital projects over basic maintenance. While the Municipal League recommends a YES vote, it does note its view that, as a matter of good governance, parks operations should be funded through the City’s General Fund. The Municipal League believes a YES vote is the best practical measure available for addressing parks funding shortfalls, but is concerned that approving this measure will result in a continued practice of reducing allocations for essential city services from the General Fund.