Plan now for park stability

If you find the arcanery of taxing districts tiresome, just go with the metaphor: merry-go-rounds and teeter-totters.

The merry-go-round: that’s what our local park district is stuck on, forced as it is to go before voters every two years with a new maintenance and operations levy just to keep the park gates open. The teeter-totter: that’s the property taxpayers’ monotonous plight, because of the way the park levy is collected – once for every two-year budget cycle, so the individual tax bill keeps going up and down, up and down.

The metaphor is occasioned by the upcoming Bainbridge Island Park and Recreation District levy for 2005-06 (believe it or not, ballots will be in the mail in about six weeks). The levy amount has yet to be determined, but park commissioners are stuck in their biennial loop of debate:

How much money will voters give us? How much do we actually need? What if we’re voted down?

While we’re confident the board will settle on a levy that’s both reasonable and saleable, we see a greater opportunity for change that would get us all off the merry-go-round and the teeter-totter for good. A three-pronged approach:

1) Put a bare-bones levy on the Feb. 3 ballot. Ensure easy passage by asking voters for just enough money to keep up with inflation, maintaining current park services without expanding programs or facilities. But also make it clear that the district will...

2) ...Be back on the ballot within a year, asking for voter approval to switch to “metropolitan” park district status. Use the time in the interim to do some long-range planning for park operations and programs, to determine a new base levy that will meet future needs, also making it clear that the plan is tied to the City Council...

3) ...Adopting a park impact fee for success. The district has long needed some dedicated capital funds to keep up with facilities needs, but past improvement levies have failed at the polls. While impact fees aren’t a cure-all, a modest fee is justifiable and would put the district on better footing.

As we said, this is somewhat arcane. But if the logic is not immediately apparent, look at it another way: the current arrangement makes no sense at all.

That is to say, we demand more and more of our 30-year-old park district, but have made it impossible for park officials to do effective long-term planning.

Stuck in a cycle of two-year levies, park officials are repeatedly forced to guess at taxpayers’ largesse. Sometimes voters fail to pass an operations levy; the parks threaten a shutdown; time and energy are wasted on another levy campaign, money is wasted on another election. Frustration and resentment result.

So what is a “metropolitan” park district, and why would it help? Briefly, the designation would change the park district’s taxing authority and put it on the same footing as, say, the fire district. That is, once an M&O levy is set by voters, the district would be funded at that level each year, plus 1 percent and whatever windfall comes from property taxes on new construction. The district would also have limited bonding capacity.

The advantages are several. First, the district would have a

stable and predictable source of funding by which to plan for the long-term. Second, voters would no longer be badgered every two years with threats of park closures and fluctuating tax bills.

As a tradeoff, the district would be subjecting itself voluntarily to the 1 percent property tax limitations under which the city and fire district now operate. If at some point the district needed more funds, it could go back to the voters for a new levy rate (as the fire department will do with its “lid lift” next year).

In the mid-1990s, islanders rejected a metropolitan park district move. But we were convinced then (and remain so) that voters were confused by the issue, and some thought the park district was trying to give itself a blank check. Clearly, with the 1 percent property tax limitation in place, that argument is moot.

As they plan for the February M&O levy, park commissioners might also explore the metropolitan park district option to see if it does indeed promise a more stable future.

It would be nice to end the two-year levy cycle once and for all, and leave the playgrounds to the kids.

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