Image via Seattle.gov.

Opponents of a proposed Seattle Metropolitan Parks District, which would establish an ongoing property tax to pay for maintenance and operation of Seattle parks, won significant changes to the ballot explanatory statement—changes that make the parks district sound more expensive and less accountable to voters—at last night's meeting of the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission. (The explanatory statement that voters will see in their voters' guide in August). 

The city council, which would serve as the governing body of the district, plans to levy an initial tax of 33 cents per $1,000 of assessed value, or about $145 a year for the owner of a $400,000 house. However, the proposal would allow the council to levy a tax of up to 75 cents per $1,000, and would stipulate that the only way to dissolve the district would be a change in state law or by a vote of the council itself. 

The groups suing to change the language, including the Seattle Community Council Federation and the Seattle Displacement Coalition, argued last night, challenging the City Attorney, that the original statement didn't make it clear that the council could increase the tax at will, and that the tax would continue in perpetuity. In the past, the city has paid for parks with parks levies that have to be renewed every six years. 

"The statement as the City Attorney has written it now can only be described at best as an unintended misrepresentation. At worst it is a willful attempt to deceive voters," the groups write in their appeal. "The extraordinarily broad new and added taxing power given to this MPD entity under state law carries substantial regressive tax impacts on low income and working class homeowners already hard hit by layer upon layer of other regressive special levies, user fees, and charges."

Last week, a King County judge added the maximum of 75 cents to the ballot title, but the ethics commission's ruling yesterday goes much further. The new ballot language:

• Explicitly states that a 75-cent tax would amount to $330 a year for a $440,000 house;

• Removes a reference to the council's ability to dissolve the district "if required by either the city or by petition with 10% of Seattle voters;

• Stipulates that the district "may only be dissolved or its actions reversed by its governing body or a change in state law, but not by local initiative"; and

• Specifies that the district could levy additional property tax above the lid imposed by state law.

The groups didn't get everything they wanted. A provision that would have eliminated most references to the interlocal agreement between the city and the parks district—the document, already signed by Mayor Ed Murray, that, according to the city attorney's office, lays out "what would actually happen if the creation of the Seattle Park District is approved"—went nowhere.

And the commission balked at language claiming the parks district would have the right "to buy, sell, or condemn land; to raise revenues for roads, airports, performing venues, and other park or non--park uses; and to engage in any business activity inside or outside Seattle as it shall judge desirable or beneficial for the public, or for the production of revenue for expenditure incidental to its park duties"—agreeing with the city attorney that "the powers that the Park District would actually exercise are expressed in the [interlocal agreement], and they do not include building airports or condemning land."

They also declined to include language stating that "Once approved, the District’s powers and taxing authority are not subject to City laws [or] its Charter." 

The changes could represent a setback for parks district supporters, who have argued that the city council is accountable to the public (if the park system is your issue and they abuse their power, you can vote against them), and that the interlocal agreement ensures that certain elements of the proposal, like the 33-cent tax, will be legally binding. Language implying that the measure would give the council unlimited power and endless taxing authority can only encourage people to vote against the district. 

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