Park levy fails; district mulls ‘metro’ switch

The two-year, $5.709 million measure earns just 54 percent support.

Stung by the poor showing of a $5.709 million operations levy at the polls Tuesday, Bainbridge park officials will look at ending the district’s two-year levy cycle once and for all.

Director Terry Lande said Friday he will appoint a blue-ribbon panel to study a possible switch to “metropolitan” park district status, and expects to take a recommendation to the park board at the end of this month. The board then could decide whether to pursue the change in taxing status, or put another levy before voters this fall.

“The word on the street is, ‘oh, (the levy) will pass next time,’” Lande said. “I don’t want it to just pass next time, because we don’t ever get off that treadmill. I think it’s time we got off the treadmill, and find a better way to run the show.”

Lande’s announcement followed voter rejection of a two-year, $5.709 million operations levy to fund Bainbridge Island Park and Recreation District operations in 2005-06. Unofficial final results showed the levy earning just 55.4 percent support, with 4,389 votes for and 3,528 against. The levy needed 60 percent support to pass.

It’s the second time in as many years that the park levy failed on the first try. In February 2002, a $4.79 million levy topped out at 58 percent in the face of organized opposition by parents of youth ballplayers upset with maintenance of ball fields. The park board added money to boost field maintenance, and a $4.92 million levy earned 70 percent support that September.

The levy before voters Tuesday represented a 16 percent increase, or 8 percent per budget year. The hike was driven by rising insurance costs for the district’s 25-person staff, and previously agreed-upon wage increases; new support for the senior and teen centers; and higher maintenance costs for new parks and facilities.

“I can’t figure this one out,” said Kirk Robinson, park board commissioner. “I thought we’d run right around 60 percent, if you look at past levies. And with no organized oppposition, it’s hard to figure out what people were voting against.”

Lande attributed the failure to apathy by park supporters who didn’t vote, general concern over local and state tax issues, and voter weariness at having to determine the district’s financial fate for the third time in two years.

“I think what’s happened is that we’ve gone back so many times in the last three years, I think people are tired of it. They want to see it changed,” Lande said.

A change to metropolitan tax status would require 50 percent voter approval.

The district would be given a base property tax level that would be collected from year to year without voter approval, as the fire district now enjoys.

The levy would be limited to a 1 percent increase per year, plus the tax value of new construction; if park officials needed more money, they could go to voters for a “lid lift” to raise the levy base.

The vote to change to a metropolitan district would set the levy level at the same time, and would also put all park board seats up for re-election.

Island voters rejected such a switch a decade ago, choosing to stay with a two-year funding cycle that Lande describes as “completely broken, archaic and confusing.”

The blue-ribbon panel will be composed of park board members, staff and citizens; its makeup will be announced Monday.

Should the group recommend against putting the metropolitan switch before voters, the board then would have to decide when to put another M&O levy before on the ballot, and whether to raise or lower the levy amount.

Lande’s sentiments are clearly with the metropolitan option.

“I think it’s the most important thing for the park district’s future,” he said.

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