Everyone agrees Seattle’s parks system is in dire financial straits, with more than $270 million in “deferred” maintenance, including deteriorating structures, water mains and sewers. But does this crisis justify handing over control and authority of our entire parks system — including pools, gyms, lakes and green spaces — to a proposed independent Metropolitan Parks District (MPD)?
Consider the characteristics of this MPD. It has:
• Ongoing, permanent independent taxing authority, with the ability to raise property tax bills as much as $300 annually in perpetuity, plus an additional 1 percent per year above that for inflation.
• Immunity from Seattle laws and regulations on competitive bidding, equal employment, human rights, ethics, civil service, whistleblower protection, percent-for-the-arts, tree protection and even the comprehensive plan. MPDs are subject only to a set of very general state “requirements.”
• Ability to sell off park assets, to privatize city buildings and land. And it could acquire adjacent land even outside city limits — your land, as well — via eminent domain.
• Immunity from any challenge by local citizen initiative or referendum.
Although legislation requires that the MPD board shall consist of Seattle City Councilmembers, they’d be acting as independent commissioners, bound only by broad powers outlined under state law, not the city charter.
As for the day-to-day activities of operating our park system, the real power would cede to administrators completely insulated from public scrutiny.
The state law also requires Seattle voters first to approve creation of the MPD, but once it’s created, there would be no local means to reverse the decision or alter future actions.
Even before there’s been a public airing of other funding options, nearly all city councilmembers back creation of the MPD, along with a coterie of corporate and other well-heeled elites. Our new mayor-elect Ed Murray also says he likes it. And we’re betting you weren’t even aware of it nor were you consulted.
When a citizens’ advisory group was created to review funding alternatives for our parks, with a public hearing held last month, our current council and soon-to-be-ex-mayor appointed mostly insiders who appear already committed to MPD creation. The minutes from their discussions are dominated by analysis of that option and how to sell it to voters.
The only other option considered was one that asked voters to approve a new parks levy to replace the current one that expires next year. One possibility is a levy that would run forever, adding another $30 a year or more to property taxes. This annual tax hit would run in tandem with the new taxes imposed by the MPD — meaning, in the not-too-distant future, property owners could be paying up to another $330 in property taxes in perpetuity to the MPD.
There’s no doubt our nationally regarded parks system is ailing. But the cures now being considered by city officials may only make the patient sicker, say a growing number of critics at the neighborhood level. We’re inclined to agree.
Neighborhood activists predict MPD taxes and a perpetual parks levy will be substituted for current funds coming from the general fund that are dedicated to parks. Once the city has tapped these new sources, then general fund money will be withdrawn from parks and dedicated to other uses. That’s what’s been happening over the past two decades, since the city turned to voter-approved parks levies.
Critics of the MPD call for a reallocation of general fund dollars back into the parks system. They also want the city auditor to perform an extensive internal audit, and to reallocate staff to make better use of parks dollars. Above all, they’re seeking a more transparent process and a longer, broader and more thorough public review of all funding options.
A key funding source commonly used across the region, yet resolutely ignored by our elected officials, is developer-impact fees. With thousands of new housing units expected for Seattle and a resurgence of downtown office growth, potentially tens of millions of dollars annually could be raised to fill the current hole in the parks department budget.
Instead of truly considering options, we find ourselves in a pell-mell rush to create an MPD with little or no public dialogue. As a city, we are at risk of seeing our parks taken away from us in the name of saving them. It’s time to take a step back from the brink.