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Originally published July 30, 2013 at 8:30 PM | Page modified July 31, 2013 at 1:38 PM

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Parks levy needs a watchdog

Seattle Times staff columnist

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By Sandeep's reckoning, there was a levy before, and it is expiring, so it's not a new... MORE
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I admit, when it comes to schools and parks, I tend to be a Pavlovian dog. Put a levy for either of those on my election ballot, and there’s almost nothing that can dissuade me from voting yes.

But man, they don’t make it easy sometimes.

On next Tuesday’s ballot is a renewal levy for King County parks. Who could be against parks, right? Pretty much nobody.

So why did they have to hide what it really does from the voters?

On the official ballot and in the voters guide, the parks levy is described as a renewal of an expiring levy, as modest in nature, and, in capital boldface from supporters, as not even a new tax at all.

“Renewing the parks levy IS NOT A NEW TAX,” reads the statement from Yes for Our Parks (emphasis theirs.)

Both the ballot and the county’s legal statement list what the new parks tax rate will be — 18.77 cents per $1,000 of property value — but leave out the old rate. So you can’t figure out: Are our taxes going up? It kind of sounds like they’re staying the same. But what are the odds of that?

It turns out the old rate was 13.3 cents. So this renewal that isn’t a “new tax” actually is a 41 percent increase in the rate for next year, then rising more in later years.

Overall it will boost the revenue flowing into the parks program by 80 percent — from $220 million in the last six-year levy to $396 million in this one.

That whopping figure — that total parks funding is nearly going to double — appears nowhere on the ballot, in the voters guide or in the three-page text of the law appended to the guide.

It’s almost as if they didn’t want us to know.

The spokesman for Yes for Our Parks, Sandeep Kaushik, says I’m conjuring “dark conspiracies.”

“There was no intent to deceive in any of this,” he said. “It is a renewal of an existing levy, so that’s what we meant when we said it’s not a new tax. And we do see it as only a modest increase. So that was our thinking in what we wrote.”

This would be like Comcast raising your cable rates 41 percent, then saying: “What are you fretting about? It’s just a renewal — a freshening, if you will — of your old bill.”

Any higher tax is by definition “new.” It’s money we’ll be paying that we weren’t paying before. That seems like crucial information for voters, at least on a par with what we’re going to get for the money. (To learn more about what’s good about this levy, I recommend this report of a citizens task force on the issue.)

Two years ago, Seattle was pushing the Families and Education Levy that also both renewed a program and dramatically expanded it. The city’s statements in the voters pamphlet didn’t shine anyone on about this:

“Seattle Proposition 1 approves a property tax increase totaling $231,562,000 over seven years,” the guide read. “ ... The 2004 levy totaled $116,788,000 over seven years. The 2004 levy will expire by the end of 2011.”

Simple, declarative. It even included the incendiary words “property tax increase.” Yet instead of fainting, the voters approved it.

The guy who called me about this parks-levy Orwellianism said he’s a parks fan who just wanted to know what the measure was about.

“It’s not like a parks levy is going to fail anyway,” he said. “Is it too much to ask that they treat voters like adults and be straight with us?”

I have a queasy feeling I’m partially to blame that they don’t. I think they’ve learned it works just fine to go on treating us like Pavlovian dogs.

Danny Westneat’s column appears Wednesday and Sunday. Reach him at 206-464-2086 or dwestneat@seattletimes.com

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