The future of Seattle’s community centers is shaping up as a key issue in this year’s mayoral race, after ex-mayor and current challenger Mike McGinn expressed his concern with the city’s exploration of privatization to make improvements to the Green Lake Community Center.
“I understand why the city is looking at this,” McGinn said in a press conference outside the building on April 25, “but I also don’t understand it when we’re in one of the richest times in our city’s history.”
McGinn — who served as mayor from 2010 to 2013 — said he was approached by the parks department during his term about seeking a public-private partnership to finance the construction and operation of the Rainier Beach Community Center.
“They looked at it in depth, and what they determined through that process was that there was no way to have a third party, a private entity, run a community center yet still maintain the same access to the public that voters would expect and residents would expect,” he said.
The former mayor called privatization “the wrong approach,” and said community center funding should be a priority for the city. The public-private partnership discussion will ultimately be abandoned, he said, “because it doesn’t make sense.”
Susan Helf, a longtime Green Lake Community Center user, said privatization would cause a bevy of problems.
“We’re concerned that privatizing community centers is a violation of the city’s duty to maintain recreational centers,” she said. “It’s a mission of the city. Privatization will result in a lack of transparency, lack of accountability, higher user fees, a shift in focus, and a loss of city jobs.”
Helf also called it a “union-busting” measure, and that current staffers would lose their jobs in favor of part-time, non-unionized workers.
“It is time for the city to honor its promises, and we’re here to make them to do that,” she said.
To some extent, that’s now happening. During last Thursday’s meeting of the Seattle Board of Park Commissioners, Superintendent Jesus Aguirre said many of the repairs requested for the community center, including a new roof and ADA-compliance improvements would be made beginning this summer.
However, while much of the focus has been on Green Lake, both the Queen Anne and Magnolia Community Centers were among the eight evaluated in the city’s 2015 facility study. Queen Anne was found to need $3.3 million in renovations, and Magnolia $5.7 million, as part of $62.6 million of work needed across the eight facilities.
McGinn said he believes that figure is within the reach of city funding, noting that when the city built the Rainier Beach Community Center without an additional levy or raising taxes, the budget still maintained funding for human services and first responders.
In particular, he said, one-time real estate excise taxes (REIT) are the kind of revenue source that should be going to maintenance.
“The best thing to do is, in the boom times, take that money, put it into maintenance while you have it so that you prepare for when the bad times come, you have well maintained buildings,” he said. “That’s not what’s happening. That REIT money is being put off into new facilities, new construction, rather than taking care of what we have already.”
The 2014 parks levy provides $4.3 million annually for capital investments in community centers.
When asked why maintenance wasn’t more substantially addressed in the last two levies, McGinn said the 2008 effort (for which he served as campaign manager) was written by the city council and was overlooked. In 2014, he anticipated the measure “would have the money that we needed,” for maintenance.
“These activists are telling me the money’s there, but not being spent,” he said. “We have the capacity within existing revenues to make a difference if we make it a priority.”
McGinn said the city is “in one of the richest times” in its history, and the general fund has grown by $250 million over the past three years. On multiple occasions, the ex-mayor noted the city’s plans to spend $160 million on a proposed north police precinct without new taxes, contrasting that expenditure with the figure for community center maintenance and repairs.
“We know the city’s growing,” McGinn said. “We know the city’s changing. There’s a compact we have with the people of the city, that as the city grows, as more people come here, we need parks and open spaces, we need community centers to preserve our quality of lives for our families, for our kids, for our seniors, and for our neighborhoods.”
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