This guest op/ed is by Mark Okazaki and Steve Dubiel. Mark Okazaki is the Executive Director of Neighborhood House. Steve Dubiel is the Executive Director of EarthCorps. We've written about the proposed parks district most recently here

Image via city of Seattle.
Building on the original plan by the Olmsted brothers more than 110 years ago, Seattle has created one of the great parks systems in America. It now encompasses more than 450 parks, 185 athletic fields, and dozens of community centers, playgrounds, swimming pools and other recreational spaces and facilities. Altogether, parks cover more than 10 percent of Seattle. It’s a legacy about which we can all be proud – and which we all enjoy.

But for years now, we’ve neglected this extraordinary cultural, environmental and recreational asset. Daily maintenance has been reduced at virtually every park and community center. We now face a $270 million parks maintenance backlog – and it’s growing.

It’s time to start investing in our parks again. As the current parks levy expires, it’s time to establish stable, dedicated funding for our parks. The best way to achieve this is by establishing a Seattle Metropolitan Park District, one that is fully funded to make sure we maintain and improve our parks system so it remains green and vibrant for future generations, and so that it continues to provide access for all.

Restoring and preserving our parks legacy is going to take a lot of work.

The Seattle Parks Legacy Citizens Advisory Committee, after meeting for more than a year, identified more than $50 million annually in pressing parks system needs, including: major maintenance like replacing leaky roofs, boiler replacements, and critical electrical upgrades; ongoing maintenance like cleaning restrooms, trash pickup, and mowing; restoring staffing, hours and programs—many geared to serve Seattle’s seniors, young people, and poorer, immigrant or minority communities—at community centers for kids and seniors; acquiring new parks and open space to meet increased demand; funding for major maintenance at Woodland Park Zoo and the Seattle Aquarium; and funding to protect habitat and open space.

If we want to make progress on these parks issues, we need to move forward now on providing funding that is predictable and sustainable. Because of the limitations imposed on Seattle (over the wishes of city voters) by Tim Eyman’s initiatives, that won’t happen via the city’s general fund. Right now our parks must compete with other city services like police, fire, and human services, so when budgets are tight, as they have been in recent years, parks lose out.

We can do better.

That is why, after carefully studying the issue of parks funding, the Parks Citizens Advisory Committee voted overwhelmingly to recommend replacing the expiring parks levy with a Park District. A Parks District is a proven funding source already adopted by Tacoma and 16 other Washington cities—as well as major cities around the country—that generates reliable parks funding that cannot be diverted to other uses.

The mayor’s Parks District proposal, now before the city council, will provide $54 million annually to maintain, operate and improve our parks, community centers and playfields. And the district will include multiple accountability measures that will ensure the funds raised will be spent appropriately and wisely to address our growing parks needs.

Community concerns and priorities, and citizen oversight, will be built into the decision-making process for the use of Parks District funds. In fact, establishment of a Park District will guarantee higher levels of citizen oversight than ever before. The District will be required to form an 11-member Community Oversight Committee that will make recommendations to the mayor, the city Council, the Parks District, and the Parks Department Superintendent about the allocation of district funds.

The Oversight Committee will also, on an annual basis, review spending on parks and identify any needed adjustments in services or spending. And it will hold public hearings and develop recommendations for spending priorities as part of each six-year update to the district’s spending plan.

Because the new Parks District will replace an expiring parks levy, even at full funding it will cost the owner of a typical $400,000 home only $7 more per month in property taxes than they are currently paying. That’s a small price to pay to finally ensure that our parks will be well cared for and accessible to all, and we urge the Council to place the fully funded proposal on the August ballot.

Our parks are an urban treasure. They provide so much benefit in increasing the livability of our city and the quality of life of our residents. Neighborhood House and EarthCorps are proud to join with Seattle Neighborhood Greenways, Forterra, the Seattle Human Services Coalition, the South Park Neighborhood Association, the Seattle Aquarium, the Woodland Park Zoo, the Associated Recreation Council of Seattle, and many other organizations and civic leaders in urging the City Council to ensure that our parks continue to thrive for the next 110 years.

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