Park officials stymied by failure

Another levy try? Uncertainty reigns on Strawberry Hill.

Higher fees, a lower levy amount, a change in the district’s legal taxing status – it’s all on the table for island parks.

“We have to consider cuts,” said Ken DeWitt, Bainbridge Island Park and Recreation District commissioner, at Thursday’s board meeting. “We have to consider everything. The levy failed, and we’re starting from scratch.”

Park officials and staff regrouped this week, days after the district’s two-year, $5.709 million maintenance and operations levy for 2005-06 went nowhere at the polls.

The levy earned 55 percent, but needed 60 percent to pass. It was the second straight park levy to fail on the first try, leaving officials to ponder how to get funding past voters and again avert a shutdown.

The district could come back with a second levy try on May 18 – the same election in which the Bainbridge Island Fire Department will ask for a 20 percent property tax “lid lift” – or wait until September or November. A school construction bond levy has also been discussed for fall, but may be put off until next year.

The levy would have increased property taxes on the average island home by about $30 per year; failure vexed commissioners, as there was no organized opposition.

“There wasn’t anyone out there saying, ‘we don’t want the pool, we don’t want this or that, we don’t want parks,’” commissioner Kirk Robinson said.

Perry Barrett, the district’s senior planner, said part of the problem lies with running a measure referred to under the law as an “excess levy.”

“The casual voter associates that with ‘extra’ programs,” Barrett said, when in fact such levies are the district’s primary funding source.

Representing the Bainbridge Resource Group, a citizen group that looks at taxation issues, Bob Fortner cited two “elephants in the room” that he said the board needs to confront.

First is the new aquatics facility, which despite its popularity requires a much higher subsidy to operate. Hours at that facility could have to be cut, he suggested.

“Even though there’s a lot of revenue generated, we all know what the bottom line is,” he said.

Fortner also cited new costs coming from recent open space purchases; lands purchased under the city’s open space program are generally being turned over to the park district to maintain.

Those costs represented just a small part of the failed levy, though; of the 8 percent annual increase proposed, two-thirds would have gone to personnel costs for the district’s 25-person staff.

Sue Hylen, cultural arts supervisor, told the board that there is community support for reorganizing the district under “metropolitan park district” status.

Such a change, which would require voter approval and the re-election of all five board positions, would give the district a base tax levy that is collected each year, as the fire district now enjoys. The levy amount would increase by 1 percent each year, but the district could periodically seek a “lid lift” to establish a higher base.

While commissioner Sally Mathews argued it would be “defeatist” not to consider the move, commissioner Dave Shorett said it would require considerable study over a period of time.

“If we just make a decision and it turns out to be the wrong one and we lose again, we’re in deep trouble,” Shorett said.

The district could also pursue a six-year operations levy, Robinson said. But such a levy apparently would be capped at a “mil rate” of 60 cents per thousand dollars valuation, and would not generate enough funds for the district to operate.

The board OK’d formation of an ad hoc committee to look at options, with a report due at the Feb. 26 board meeting.

At the same time, the district is looking at programs with an eye torward cuts, and generating more revenues through new or higher user fees. Among the options being considered is a “field use fee” on youth sports leagues that play on park district fields.

Perhaps most vexing to park commissioners was the marginal turnout for the all-mail levy. Even with ballots sent to every registered voter on the island, participation hit just 55 percent.

“I don’t understand,” Shorett said, “why people throw it in the wastebasket and don’t vote.”

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