Olympia will likely ask voters to raise their taxes later this year, possibly in the name of parks, as city leaders explore options for bringing in more money.
Nothing has been made official yet, but the topic has received serious attention lately from the Olympia City Council and the city’s Finance Committee.
Olympia faces a budget deficit of $3 million by 2019 without any new revenue sources. Further complicating the scenario are economic uncertainties related to falling gas prices, state education and employee medical benefits, among others.
Councilman Jim Cooper said it would be nearly impossible to get the city’s budget on a sustainable track without going to the voters.
At the council’s annual retreat this month, council members discussed the possibility of raising money for park projects through a ballot measure for a waterfront bond, for example, or the establishment of a metropolitan park district.
The council held a study session Tuesday to review financial dilemmas and possible ballot measures. Some council members agreed that the city should harness the public’s enthusiasm for parks. Community groups are pushing for land acquisition on the isthmus and in southeast Olympia to build more parks ahead of the city’s projected population growth.
However, the Parks Department can barely maintain its current facilities — and faces a funding gap of $500,000 in 2016.
“I believe our voters are willing to pay taxes for what they believe in,” Councilwoman Jeannine Roe said Tuesday. “I am hopeful we can get something on the ballot this year.”
Jerry Reilly of the Olympia Capitol Park Foundation believes the voters would be receptive to a park-related tax. The foundation has been lobbying to demolish the vacant nine-story Capital Center Building and build a park on the downtown isthmus. Reilly referenced a poll in 2012 in which at least 58 percent of respondents supported raising taxes in order to tear down the building and make a park in its place.
“This community loves its parks, loves its open spaces,” Reilly said. “With a well-thought-out campaign, I think there would be public support.”
In 2004, voters approved a 3 percent utility tax increase to help fund acquisition of about 500 acres of new park land. Olympia resident Karen Messmer was part of a citizen committee that led the effort, and said voters could support a well-reasoned ballot measure if one surfaces in 2015.
Messmer, a former council member, said money won’t solve all the city’s park problems. She also is disappointed that the city has fallen short of its 2004 promise by purchasing only 63 acres of park land in the past 10 years.
Regardless of whether Olympia asks taxpayers for more park money this year, Messmer wants the city to honor the original intent of the 2004 measure moving forward. With the city’s population expected to grow by 26,000 people in the next 20 years, Messmer said that now is a crucial time to buy park land and protect it from development.
“We’re not looking to blame anyone or change the past,” she said, acknowledging the tough economic climate in recent years. “It’s time to get back on course.”
One concern that surfaced at Tuesday’s council study session was “taxpayer fatigue,” especially when it comes to further taxing utilities. Another potential obstacle for a new tax, according to city staff, is that Thurston County and Intercity Transit also are expected to go to voters with sales tax initiatives in 2015.