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Parks hope for best, plan for worst

Park district maintenance worker Rob Robinson hangs a soccer net on a goal at Battle Point Park Friday. - ROGERICK ANAS/Staff Photo
Park district maintenance worker Rob Robinson hangs a soccer net on a goal at Battle Point Park Friday.
— image credit: ROGERICK ANAS/Staff Photo

The ballots have yet to go into the mail.

But Bainbridge park officials are already deciding how to close up shop by the end of the year, if voters Sept. 17 don’t approve operations and maintenance funding for the next two years.

“I’m meeting with each of the department heads to come up with a plan now,” said Dave Lewis, park district executive director. “We’ll have to begin taking steps almost immediately to cease operations by Dec. 31.”

At issue is the district’s $4.92 million maintenance and operations budget for the next two years – the money needed to actually run the district. By state law, “junior” taxing agencies like the park district need voter approval of their operating budget every two years.

Mail-in ballots will begin arriving on Bainbridge by the end of August, county auditor Karen Flynn said. Although polls will be open on Sept. 17 – required by state law for the partisan primary elections – Flynn expects that over 80 percent of the votes will be cast by mail.

In February, islanders voted 4,717 “for” and 3,346 “against” the levy – a 58.49 percent approval margin that fell some 120 votes shy of the necessary 60 percent “supermajority.”

And because districts are limited by law to two tries a year, a failure in the coming election will mean the district will have no operating funds come Jan. 1, 2003, and will have to shut down.

Armed with new field-maintenance agreements with major user groups – and with a statement of non-opposition from the group that spearheaded the anti-levy campaign in February – the district hopes the contingency shutdown plans won’t be necessary.

In February, the levy was actively opposed by a group calling itself Parents for Better Parks, which bought newspaper advertising and criticized the level of park maintenance.

Spokesman Tom Hujar, the only identified member of that group, said this week that his group will not oppose the levy in September.

“This doesn’t mean we’re going to be supporting it,” Hujar said. “We regret that the park district has not taken steps to increase the maintenance budget, but we’re not going to be irresponsible and try to close the parks down.”

Hujar said the group would try to make its point in other ways.

“In the upcoming elections, we do plan to run candidates opposing each and every one of the park commissioners,” he said.

In the wake of the failed levy, both supporters and opponents filed complaints with the state Public Disclosure Commission.

Hujar asserted that district employees used park facilities to support the levy, a charge they have denied. Park supporter John Rudolph complained that Parents for Better Parks did not file documents required from political action committees in a timely fashion.

Both complaints are under investigation by the PDC, but have not been resolved.

Although the Bainbridge Island Little League did not actively oppose the levy in February, neither did it actively support it, and a number of individual parents and league officers were critical of ball field maintenance.

Among their complaints were that multi-sport fields were badly beaten up by the time baseball season rolled around in the spring and summer months.

In the intervening months, the district and the Little League have hammered out a 21-page written agreement specifying in detail which party will do what to maintain ball fields at Strawberry Hill, Rotary, Hidden Cove, Battle Point and Sands Road parks. The district has similar agreements with Pee Wee football and Bainbridge Island Youth Soccer.

“This plan is good for the facilities, good for the fields themselves,” Lewis said. “Recovery will be enhanced between seasons.”

That maintenance agreement and the cooperative attitude behind it have won over Little League officials.

“There seems to be a new attitude of working together, and the maintenance agreement is part of that,” Little League board president Steve Smith said. “I think that will overcome whatever reluctance there might have been.”

Smith could not say whether the Little League will support the levy as an organization, saying the league has some hesitance about taking political stands. But Smith said at the least, he expects individual parents to work for passage of the levy.

“I suspect individual members will be encouraging their friends to support it,” Smith said. “I certainly will.”

To carry out its responsibilities under the various maintenance agreements, the park district has added seasonal workers, Lewis said, and bumped up the levy request by $50,000 to pay for them.

A pro-levy committee has been formed, and plans an educational campaign, member and Chamber of Commerce executive director Kevin Dwyer said.

“We’re working on a public relations campaign with a theme of ‘Partners for Parks,’” Dwyer said.

The plan is to activate the user groups that may have no connection to one another, he said, and to undertake an educational effort to hammer home the fact that the levy pays for basic operations, not options.

“There may be a perception that this is something extra,” Dwyer said, “but it’s not.

“This is to keep the doors open.”

The $4.92 million levy request is a 40 percent increase over the $3.5 million operating budget for the 01-02 biennium.

The increase, Lewis said, is driven principally by the expansion of facilities, as well as by increases for insurance and utilities.

“The new swimming pool is the biggest single thing,” said Lewis. “We have gone from 35 employees there to 70. We also have several new parks and four miles of new trails.”

Overall, the park district is responsible for operating and maintaining almost 1,000 acres of parkland on the island, Lewis said. Its mission also includes the Teen Center and and the Bainbridge Island Senior Community Center, and a broad array of recreational classes.

“Up until four or five years ago, the district had been in a status quo mode, which kept the cost down, but did not keep up with the population growth,” Lewis said. “For the last four years, we have been playing catch up.”

Because of the many functions of the district and the variety of interests served, Lewis said he understands the frustration some user groups may feel.

“We have an incredibly diverse group of people with a broad spectrum of interests, and facilities that serve those interests,” he said. “We can’t be as perfect in any area as people who are passionate about it would like us to be.”

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