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 greenspaces — to a proposed independent Metropolitan Parks District (MPD)?

Consider the characteristics of this MPD:

•Ongoing, permanent independent taxing authority, with the ability to raise your property tax bill as much as $300 annually in perpetuity, plus an additional 1 percent per year above that for inflation;

•Immunity from any of Seattle’s 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 effectively privatize city buildings and land. And it could acquire adjacent land even outside city limits — your land, as well — via eminent domain; and

•Immunity from any challenge by local citizen initiative or referendum.

Although state-enabling legislation requires that the MPD board shall consist of our City Council members, they’d be acting as independent commissioners, bound only by broad powers outlined under that 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 its future actions. 

Few options considered

Even before there’s been a public airing of other funding options, nearly all of our City Council members 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, let alone consulted. 

When a “citizens advisory group” was created supposedly to review funding alternatives for our parks, with a public hearing held just a few days ago, our current council and soon-to-be-ex-mayor appointed mostly insiders who appear already committed to creation of the MPD. Minutes from their discussions are dominated by analysis of that option and how to sell it to voters. 

The only other option given consideration is a new parks levy that voters would be asked to approve to replace the current one expiring next year. One possibility is a levy that would run forever and add another $30 a year or more to your property taxes. This annual tax hit would run in tandem with the new taxes imposed by the MPD — meaning, in the not-to-distant future, you 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 — so 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 monies coming the general fund and 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.

Effectively, that’s what’s been happening over the last two decades since the city turned to special voter-approved parks levies. Where once parks were viewed as a basic service as integral as police, fire or public utilities, as the City Charter decrees, now they’re treated like a frill to be funded with special levies. 

Critics of the MPD call first for a reallocation of general fund monies back into the park system. They also seek an extensive internal audit by the city auditor to discover where efficiencies can be found and staff reallocated to make more effective use of the dollars available for parks. 

Above all, they’re seeking a more transparent process and a longer, broader and more thorough public review and vetting of all funding options to save our park system.  

The take-away

As we’ve said in prior columns, a key funding source commonly used across the region, yet resolutely ignored by our elected, 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. 

JOHN V. FOX and CAROLEE COLTER are coordinators for the Seattle Displacement Coalition (www.zipcon.net). 

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