Parks budgeting for the long haul

A proposed tax hike would fund repairs and new amenities across the district.

After 40 years of living hand-to-mouth, the park district may finally put something in the larder.

A long-term capital improvement plan, and what may be its first-ever rainy-day account for repairs, are hallmarks of the district’s draft budget for 2006.

It’s the first budgeting effort since island voters approved a change to “metropolitan” park district status, giving the district stable, long-term taxing authority. The change ends a two-year levy cycle that precluded long-term planning and routinely saw park facility repairs go uncompleted for want of funds.

“It’s cool,” said Terry Lande, district director, of the district’s new financial stability. “The problem now is, we’re faced with I don’t know how many years of roof repairs and stuff. Forever, there hasn’t been dime one put to ‘let’s see what’s broke and fix it.’”

The draft budget will be discussed at a park board workshop at 5 p.m. Thursday at Strawberry Hill Center, before the regular 7 p.m. meeting. And unlike years past – in which project after project was pared out, to make the next levy more palatable at the polls – the budget includes $500,000 in proposed new spending for park upgrades.

The new capital plan charts facilities work for the next five years. Repair projects in 2006 would range from septic upgrades at Battle Point to water system improvements at Strawberry Hill.

Amenities would be added next year to various parks and newly acquired open space properties, including the Grand Forest, the Hall and Peters properties, the Rockaway Beach dive park and Blakely Harbor Park. Work would continue on the Battle Point transmitter building, eyed for a community recreation center.

Lande has proposed adding a landscape architect to the district staff to design facilities upgrades.

“Why did we go metro if we didn’t want to do some of these things?” Lande asked. “We want a capital improvement plan, we want some reserves. We’ve added hundreds of acres (of parks and open space), but we haven’t added any staffing.”

Lande also hopes to fast-track the repayment schedule to the state, to retire early the outstanding debt on the new pool. The district borrowed $700,000 from the state to fund completion of the new aquatic center, debt that’s not currently set to be paid off until 2011.

All of these goals would come with a price: a tax increase for islanders. The district collected $2.567 million in property taxes in 2005, while the draft budget would require about $3.445 million.

As a metropolitan district, the park board is authorized to set its own base tax rate of up to 75 cents per $1,000 valuation. After that, the district will be under the same 1 percent property tax hike limitation as the city and fire districts.

Lande said that the district should be able to go 10-15 years or longer without asking voters for additional funds.

“To me, this says we’re on an even keel from now on,” he said.

* * * * *

Money and turf

The park board will discuss the 2006 draft budget at a workshop at 5 p.m. Thursday at Strawberry Hill Center. The regular meeting follows at 7 p.m., and the agenda includes a proposal by the BI Youth Soccer Club to install artificial turf fields at Battle Point Park.

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