Support for parks is overwhelming

Just in case the levy went down again, Terry Lande had sketched out rough plans for shutting down the Bainbridge Island Park and Recreation District – staff layoffs, transfer of holdings to other agencies and other tasks from a park director’s worst nightmare.

Instead, island voters gave overwhelming support Tuesday to a short-term tax funding measure for local parks, and also approved by a wide margin the formation of a new park district with stable, long-term funding.

A one-year, $2.567 million maintenance and operations levy for 2005 earned 75 percent support, while creation of a “metropolitan” park district earned 69 percent in unofficial final returns. In approving the levy, islanders averted park closures that had loomed since the failure of a two-year operations levy last February.

“I don’t know if you’d call it a landslide or a mandate or what,” Lande said, “but it was huge.”

And those contingency plans? They went into the office shredder first thing Wednesday.

“Somebody said, ‘are you doing what I think what you’re doing?’ I said, ‘yep’ – bzzzzzz...” Lande said. “They’re for nobody to see.”

Voters also approved a five-member board for the new district, selecting all five members of the current board. Only one of thse positions was contested, and incumbent Kirk Robinson earned 65 percent against challenger John Wade. Also named to the new board were Tom Swolgaard, Sarah “Sally” Mathews, Ken DeWitt and Dave Shorett.

Lande and several park commissioners watched returns on a computer at the Bainbridge Island Senior Center on election evening. Asked by a passerby whether the twin ballot measures needed simple or “super” majorities to pass, Robinson looked at the early returns and replied, “They’re both super right now.”

Added Swolgaard: “We’re feeling super right now.”

The results ended months of anxiety over the future of the island’s park system, beyond the possibility of a shutdown. Officials had cast their lot with the idea of replacing the current district with a new “metropolitan” entity.

The one-year levy was added to the ballot relatively late, after officials learned that the new district would not be able to collect property taxes until 2006.

The new park district will function identically, but will have stable tax funding similar to the fire district instead of a two-year levy cycle.

The vote culminated months of organization and campaigning by park volunteers, including a petition drive that gathered more than 3,300 signatures to put the metropolitan issue on the ballot.

DeWitt and his colleagues credited the work of campaign volunteers including John Grinter, who organized the signature drive, and youth sports teams who turned out in a force for a rally around the ferry terminal three weeks ago.

“It was a long, long summer,” Swolgaard said. “I’m pleased as punch that the public has supported us.”

Several commissioners said the February levy failure created a sense of urgency among voters, for both the one-year levy and the issue of stable funding under a metropolitan system. What had cast the park district’s future into uncertainty may have worked in favor of the district in the end.

“I’m happier that it worked out this way,” said DeWitt, a long-time advocate of the metropolitan park district change.

“The island came face to face with an issue we’ve needed to deal with for years.”

It was the second time the metropolitan park district issue has gone before Bainbridge voters. A similar measure was defeated in 1993.

Commissioners said the new district can undertake long-term planning, without fear that operations will be imperiled by levy failures.

The metropolitan district and the current district will operate side by side for the next year, as assets are transferred from one to the other before the old district is disbanded.

While it has been assumed the the new entity would include the word “metropolitan” in its name, Lande said this week that’s not necessarily the case. The moniker Bainbridge Island Park and Recreation District may go unchanged.

“If it doesn’t add anything for legal reasons, we’ll probably leave it,” he said.

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