At the city's parks levy plan citizens' oversight committee meeting last night—the last chance for public comment on parks funding—there was a relatively strong consensus that the city's $267 million parks maintenance shortfall should be filled not by another six-year levy—the traditional way Seattle has paid for parks acquisition, maintenance, and operations—but by creating a first-ever Metropolitan Parks District (MPD)—a taxing district, encompassing the entire city, with an ongoing property tax overseen by the city council.
The last parks levy, which voters passed in 2008, was focused on building new parks. Unfortunately, it didn't include funding to operate and maintain those new facilities or the 6,200 acres of parks we already have, resulting in a $267 million maintenance shortfall and the elimination of about 15,000 hours a year at community centers across the city. (Former mayor Mike McGinn campaigned for the 2008 levy, and consistently defended its lack of operations and maintenance funding throughout his term).
"If you ask people to reduce the major maintenance backlog and you come back in six years and you're still asking them to remove that major maintenance backlog from six years prior, then I think you have a problem."—Ed Murray Because the shortfall is so dire, Mayor Ed Murray, who campaigned on the issue of the maintenance backlog, told the committee last night, "I believe that we need to focus on basic needs [and] maintenance. This is the only way for this parks system to survive."
However, Murray added, a six-year levy alone won't be enough to fill the shortfall; that would require another levy in six years—a tough sell. "The size of the maintenance backlog is such that levies by themselves, in a six-year period, will not solve it," Murray said. "If you ask people to reduce the major maintenance backlog and you come back in six years and you're still asking them to remove that major maintenance backlog from six years prior, then I think you have a problem."
Additionally, "If we deal entirely with levies, anything else you might want to do in this city is not going to happen," Murray said. Murray is not interested in another levy to replace the current levy, which is expiring this year.
City budget director Ben Noble added: "The funding level [needed], in my mind, tends to point pretty strongly toward an MPD."
Murray didn't come out explicitly in favor of an MPD (or a specific dollar figure, although he said somewhere "in the neighborhood of $50 million" a year seemed reasonable). But he did point to a poll by EMC Research, which found 61 percent support for a metropolitan parks district, a number that scarcely wavered even after negative messaging about the downsides of an MPD.
Notably, positive messaging didn't cause the numbers to bump up much either, suggesting that people simply want parks to be funded; they don't especially care how. "People have a good idea of where they are on this and you really can’t move them much one way or the other," said EMC pollster Andrew Thibault, who presented his findings at last night's meeting.
Several speakers raised the objection that EMC's poll was purely political, designed to promote the MPD concept, and that the pollsters got what they were looking for. "I'm amazed how the survey was able to generate a positive response about something that nobody knows anything about, because we have not had a conversation as a body politic in this city," said Beacon Hill resident Roger Pence.
Pence suggested proposing a six-year levy now, and "work[ing] towards the long-term solution" over the next six years.
Thibault responded that as poll language on MPDs goes, "I would say that this is much more conservative and legalese than those that [list] a lot more of the benefits."
Other speakers expressed concern that a special, permanent tax for parks would give the city an incentive to slash parks spending in the general fund and spend that money on other things. Noble said that wasn't likely. "My expectation would be that there be a commitment to maintain a base level of funding at current levels," barring another major recession, Noble said.
The oversight committee meets two more times before making a recommendation to the mayor and council for an August ballot measure.