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Originally published July 12, 2014 at 4:45 PM | Page modified July 21, 2014 at 5:52 PM

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Guests: Is a Seattle Park District the best way to fund parks?

Seattle Times guest columnists argue in favor and against a proposal on the Aug. 5 ballot to create a Seattle Park District to fund parks.

Corrected version

  • PRO: Maintain parks' legacy with Seattle's Prop. 1
  • CON: Prop. 1 would take power away from the voters

  • Maintain parks' legacy with Seattle's Prop. 1

    UPON first seeing Seattle in 1903, famed landscape architect John Charles Olmsted noted, "I do not know of any place where the natural advantages for parks are better than here." Hired by civic leaders to design our parks, Olmsted's vision was based on a belief that parks improve society when they serve all people equally and provide a respite from the stress of daily life.

    While Olmsted's work still shapes our system today, we as a city are falling short on one key part: We are not serving all people equally.

    Seattle has one of America's great parks systems, comprising more than 465 parks, 180 ballfields, dozens of community centers, swimming pools and other facilities that together account for more than 10 percent of our city's geography.

    But for years we've neglected this extraordinary legacy.

    The truth is, our current way of funding parks and community centers is failing.

    Daily maintenance has been cut back at virtually every park and community center. Our park system now faces a $267 million maintenance backlog — and it's growing.

    Gabriel Campanario / The Seattle Times

    Community center hours and programs have been cut, disproportionately affecting those who most depend on these services. For example, private donations keep community centers open 60 hours per week in wealthier neighborhoods, while in poorer neighborhoods they are open 25 hours per week.

    It's time to invest in our parks again, so they are open, well-maintained and accessible to all.

    To meet this goal, the City of Seattle convened a diverse 15-member Parks Legacy Citizens Committee to study and recommend how to steward the parks system to meet the needs of all residents. After nine months of work, the committee voted overwhelmingly to recommend a Seattle Park District.

    The members concluded that a park district, already in place in 17 cities around Washington, would provide stable, dedicated funding for our parks, ballfields and community centers.

    Mayor Ed Murray, as well as former mayors Charles Royer, Norm Rice, Paul Schell, Greg Nickels and Mike McGinn, endorsed the park district proposal, which also received unanimous support from the City Council and the Seattle Board of Parks Commissioners.

    As the current $146 million, six-year levy expires, Seattle voters will have a chance to show their support for our parks and community centers on the Aug. 5 ballot with Proposition 1.

    If supported by the voters, Proposition 1 would provide greater citizen engagement and oversight of our parks department than ever before. Nearly two-thirds of the new funding would be used to take care of our existing parks and community centers, replacing roofs, boilers and electrical systems and providing ongoing maintenance, such as cleaning restrooms, picking up trash and mowing lawns.

    Funding would also be used to restore hours and programming at community centers for kids and seniors, develop 14 parks in neighborhoods across the city and address major maintenance backlogs at Woodland Park Zoo and the Seattle Aquarium.

    In short, Proposition 1 would help restore balance and equity to our parks system, moving toward the Olmsted ideal of equal access for all people.

    At the levy rate of 33 cents per $1,000 of assessed home value, all this work would cost the owner of a $400,000 home about $4 a month more than the expiring parks levy, which costs 20 cents per $1,000 of assessed home value.

    Proposition 1 is endorsed by dozens of respected organizations, such as the Seattle Human Services Coalition, the Sierra Club, the Friends of Athletic Fields and many others.

    Seattle's system of parks and community centers is one of the city's greatest democratic institutions, bringing together people from all walks of life.

    Everyone loves our parks. The real question is: How we do take care of them for the long term, and how can we be sure that our kids — and their kids — have access to well-maintained, safe and beautiful parks and community centers?

    A Seattle Park District would provide stable, dedicated funding for our parks and community centers. Please vote yes on Proposition 1 on your Aug. 5 primary ballot.

    Barbara Wright was co-chair of the Seattle Parks Legacy Citizens Committee. Mark Okazaki is executive director of Neighborhood House, a Seattle social-service nonprofit. More information: seattleparksforall.com


    Prop. 1 would take power away from the voters

    VOTERS should wisely vote no on Seattle Proposition 1 to create a metropolitan park district for Seattle in the Aug. 5 election. Contrary to what proponents imply, this is neither a levy renewal nor a modest administrative change. Glossy mailers of kids, parks and puppies may lull Seattle voters into creating Godzilla, not Bambi.

    Unless voters say no to Proposition 1, they would hand control of our parks permanently to an independent municipal corporation, dubbed the Seattle Park District. Once formed, voters cannot vote it out.

    Since 1968's Forward Thrust movement, Seattle voters have supported parks levies. Every few years, citizens assess past levy performance and vote on future levy expenditures, thus ensuring neighborhood needs are fairly addressed. This bite of the vote would be taken away by approving Proposition 1 and handing control of parks to a metropolitan park district.

    The district would have independent authority to raise property taxes up to $75 per $100,000 of home value. That's in addition to the city's $360 per $100,000 of home-value capacity for levy local improvement districts (LIDs).

    Proponents say the park district taxes would start low — but even at $37 per $100,000 of assessed home value, the tax would double the amount of the expiring parks levy.

    Unless voters say no, this tax would be permanent. The new park district would operate under state law.

    Citizens would not be able to use the initiative process to undo unpopular decisions. Should the Seattle Park District direct dollars toward a new Sonics arena or some waterfront Disney-like venture, these decisions could not be challenged.

    A metropolitan park district is a stealth attempt to insulate a powerful city department from the inconvenient public. The bulk of the yes campaign's war chest has been donated by organizations, many of which stand to benefit if the Seattle Park District passes.

    The Woodland Park Zoo and Seattle Aquarium, both privately managed, would receive more than $3 million annually. The billion-dollar downtown waterfront park would receive almost $4 million per year beginning in 2019.

    The City Charter requires City Council confirmation of the parks department superintendent every four years, yet there's not been a confirmation since that of former Superintendent Tim Gallagher in 2007. Gallagher left in 2010 and Christopher Williams has filled the position since then.

    A metropolitan park district would not be subject to obligations under the City Charter. Citizens risk losing their right to weigh in on the performance of the parks' top manager forever. Nor does ignoring the bedrock City Charter bode well for adherence to the so-called protections of the Interlocal Agreement, a city ordinance that can be abrogated or amended with 180 days notice.

    There has never been a comprehensive audit of parks management, its finances or its much-touted backlog.

    Why is an audit important? Parks knew of radiation pollution at Building 27 in Magnuson Park for three years before publicly disclosing it, although children routinely played soccer in that building. At Magnuson's Building 11, the parks department approved a developers' profit-driven plan for a medical clinic and possible yacht dealership. Citizens objected. The resulting lawsuit cost the city $7.3 million.

    When the parks department entered into a new deal down at Leschi last year, moorage fees, initially affordable by average citizens, got priced out.

    The war cry of proponents is "fix it first!" Sinister restrooms at Green Lake are presented as evidence the department is broke. Yet, a review of parks salaries show 25 staff make more than $100,000 a year.

    Individually, parks staff are well-liked — even beloved. But questions become sharper when asked to give parks these new powers. Good government activists across the city, including the League of Women Voters, strongly oppose the creation of a parks district.

    Voters should say no to a major change of governance in which taxes can be raised to unprecedented levels but the ability to hold the city accountable is given away. Permanently.

    Fix it first? Right On. Let's do basic housekeeping first.

    Vote no on Proposition 1 in August.

    Gail Chiarello serves on the Magnuson Park Advisory Committee and is president of her neighborhood council. Her recent novella, "Una Cita en Santiago," looks at poetry and politics in pre-Allende Chile.

    Information in this article, originally published July 12, 2014, was corrected July 14, 2014. A previous version of this story included the wrong photo of Gail Chiarello.

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