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Group organizes to defeat park levy

Decrying the “embarrassing” state of island ball fields, a parent group has formed to oppose the upcoming Bainbridge Park District levy.

In so doing, a spokesman says, Bainbridge Parents for Better Parks hopes to force the district to dedicate more money to park maintenance – or perhaps run a higher levy.

“The arrogance and incompetence of the park district has reached a level that we wanted to send a message,” said Tom Hujar, a north-end resident and chair of Bainbridge Parents for Better Parks.

Hujar said the group represents a dozen families, and will issue a news release identifying its members next week. It launched its campaign against the levy with a series of newspaper advertisements this week.

Voters Feb. 5 will decide the park district’s proposed two-year, $4.78 million maintenance and operations levy. The levy would be collected once, in the first year of the two-year budget cycle for 2003-2004, an assessment of $1.48 per $1,000 valuation on island properties.

The levy would replace the current levy of $1.26 per $1,000. Two years ago, voters approved a park levy rate of $1.38, but a windfall from taxes on new construction brought it down.

Park officials say the increase is needed to keep up with staffing at the new Nakata Pool, which opened in December. The district also hopes to add a maintenance worker to the district’s five-person grounds crew, responsible for upkeep of 1,100 acres of parks and ball fields.

“The park district for years stayed constant, while the population was growing and needs were growing,” said Dave Lewis, park director. “In the past couple of years, we’ve tried to make up for that.”

But in an interview Thursday, Hujar said the district’s mindset has been “to buy and to build, but not to maintain.”

Hujar said he noticed the problem last summer, as his daughter played on the softball team that made it to the state tournament.

“Every field we went to was world class compared to what we have,” he said. “It was an embarrassment, how poor our fields were.”

Advertisements have illustrated some of the group’s complaints. One photograph shows a young man with a skateboard on his lap, dipping a fishing line into a pool of rainwater that collected in the new skate bowl at Strawberry Hill Park.

The caption reads, “The pool you didn’t vote for.”

Park officials said the bowl was designed to drain into a nearby cistern, which collects the water for irrigation of fields during the summer. Heavy January rains filled the cistern to capacity, and water backed up into the skate park.

Lewis said a sump pump has since been installed in the cistern, to draw down water when it gets too high.

“You do a project and get a glitch, you find out what it is and you fix it,” he said. “That’s what we did.”

Park officials also disputed the group’s claim that maintenance of trails and parks was “slashed” by 14 percent last year.

Lewis noted that the district operates on a two-year budget cycle. When specific projects are completed in the first year, he said, spending is lower in the second.

The numbers cited in the advertisement, he said, do not reflect regular maintenance like mowing and groundskeeping, which appear elsewhere in the budget and are constant from year to year.

Ball field battles

The issue of ball field quality has come up at the past few park board meetings, as representatives of Bainbridge Island Little League have urged the district to make improvements at various facilities.

The group urged park officials to spend $300,000 of funds left over from the Gazzam Lake purchase on field upgrades.

But the district and its bond counsel say that money – about $450,000 total – can only be used for the purchase and development of new fields, like those at Hidden Cove and Sands Road.

The issue is being reviewed further by counsel, and after another meeting this week, Little League officials agreed to commit private money to some near-term upgrades.

Lewis said district policy has always been to maintain ball facilities at a level appropriate for “recreational” use by the general public. If user groups or leagues want upgrades for “competitive” play, he said, they can raise money on their own.

Gaspich, though, said the present facilities “are in poor condition and need to be improved. We disagree that they are even at ‘recreational play’ standards, and we’d like them to divert funding to provide at least a ‘band-aid fix’ to bring them to that standard.”

As to the anti-levy campaign, Gaspich said Little League is not affiliated with the Parents for Better Parks group, although some parents are members of both.

Another bond

Beyond the Gazzam Lake money, Lewis, said the issue of big-dollar improvements is also outside the scope of the upcoming “maintenance and operations” levy.

To deal with facilities upgrades, he said, the park board may form a task force comprising all user groups – baseball, softball, gymnastics, equestrian and others – to determine long-term needs.

If the group settles on a plan and necessary funding, the district could then put a separate capital improvement levy before voters.

“What makes this difficult is that all these groups want wonderful facilities just for them,” Lewis said, adding, “I think they need to be aware of each other.”

Hujar has other ideas, and said he would like to see the park district taken over by the city, or change its legal status to that of a “metropolitan” park district.

The latter move would allow the district to run six-year operating levies instead of the two-year levies prescribed for districts of its current taxing status. The district actually put that issue to island voters in the mid-1990s, but it was defeated.

“I want the best parks,” Hujar said. “I don’t want the worst parks, and that’s what we’re getting. Our kids are getting shortchanged.”

If the park levy fails, the district will put another one to the voters this spring. But the anti-levy campaign would leave the park board in an unusual position, unsure whether “No” voters on the first attempt felt the levy was too high, or too low.

Lewis suggested that the campaign is misguided.

“I don’t know how closing down the park system and locking the gates serves the public,” he said.

Staff Writer Jim Whiting contributed to this report.

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