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Originally published Wednesday, April 9, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Council favors renewal of levy for parks

With rising condo towers and disappearing green space in Seattle, City Council members say the city needs more parks. A levy aimed at building...

Seattle Times staff reporter

With rising condo towers and disappearing green space in Seattle, City Council members say the city needs more parks. A levy aimed at building new parks expires this year, and several on the council say the public would support renewing it.

But there's one member of the public who does not support it — the mayor. Every voter-approved city levy since 2001 has originated with him. The City Council approved putting those levies on the ballot, but Mayor Greg Nickels proposed the property-tax increases, organized supporters and raised the money to fund the campaigns.

Even without Nickels' backing, several City Council members favor putting a parks levy on the ballot this year. They are exploring asking voters to fund a $140 million six-year measure.

Council President Richard Conlin said the mayor's support isn't necessary at this point but the council hopes to secure it. "We hope we can come up with something that he will support," Conlin said.

The current parks levy will cost the owner of the median Seattle home, estimated at $420,000, $104 this year. That cost will disappear next year because the levy is expiring.

Nickels has proposed a $75 million levy to repair Pike Place Market, which would cost that same homeowner $38 a year starting next year. While he wants the Market levy on the November ballot, he opposes a new parks levy, saying taxpayers need a break.

"The economy is a real concern," Nickels said at a news conference for the Market levy last month. "We have to be careful what we ask of voters."

Council members say even though times are tough, the public is willing to keep investing in new parks.

They commissioned a $25,000 poll of 600 residents on a $140 million six-year levy to fund acquisition of parks land, play fields and trails. If voters approved both a new parks levy and the Market levy, the typical homeowner would pay $104 next year — the same amount the current parks levy is costing this year, supporters on the council say.

Seventy percent of respondents said they would definitely or probably approve such a measure. The same approval rating held true for a hypothetical $240 million levy, which would cost the typical homeowner $135 per year.

"We believe that this data indicates there is in fact pretty strong public support," said Conlin. After eight years, the expiring $198 million parks levy has not met all of the city's needs for community centers and parks, said Tom Rasmussen, chairman of the parks committee. Neighborhoods such as Belltown still need a park, he said.

Council members are now putting together a 20-member advisory committee to come up with a list of parks projects the public wants funded.

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The deadline to get a levy proposal on the November ballot is Aug. 12.

Deputy Mayor Tim Ceis said the mayor has been "consistent and clear" that he does not want to renew the parks levy this year. "With the state of economy and people's overriding concern with affordable housing, it's best not to load up the ballot," Ceis said.

The mayor has other levies in the pipeline.

Nickels, the board chairman for Sound Transit, has favored going to the ballot this fall with a proposal to extend light rail, though the board has not decided whether to run a measure in 2008 or 2010. The package would likely call for a sales-tax boost of 4 or 5 cents on a $10 purchase, or a yearly cost of $100 or $125 for the average household. It would extend the future light-rail line and increase commuter train and bus service.

Last fall, voters rejected the Roads and Transit ballot measure, offering highway projects and 50 miles of light-rail expansions.

Next year, the mayor plans to ask voters to renew the low-income-housing levy.

He would like to wait until 2010, assuming he is re-elected, for a new parks levy, and hopes to pair it with funding for a new campus plan for Seattle Center.

Councilmember Richard McIver said it's a bad idea for the council to barrel ahead without the mayor. "I think divided houses fall."

"Look at Sound Transit," he said, pointing to King County Executive Ron Sims' opposition to last fall's failed ballot measure. "Look what happened there." McIver is also not convinced the city has the resources to operate and maintain more park land.

Ceis said the mayor's support was critical in previous levy campaigns. The deputy mayor estimated a levy campaign would have to raise $300,000 to $400,000 to pass. It might cost even more in an election year that includes presidential and legislative races. With a longer ballot, voters tend to get fatigued, Ceis said, and a campaign would have to raise more to get their attention.

Staff reporter Mike Lindblom contributed to this report.

Sharon Pian Chan: 206-464-2958 or schan@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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