Yes on Lacey Prop. 1: Parks can boost Lacey’s emergence as a city

Germaine Harris of Beau Legs Fish & Chips smokes up a rack of chicken drumsticks during the 2016 South Sound BBQ Festival at Hunthamer Park in Lacey.
Germaine Harris of Beau Legs Fish & Chips smokes up a rack of chicken drumsticks during the 2016 South Sound BBQ Festival at Hunthamer Park in Lacey. toverman@theolympian.com

Lacey is unusual among South Sound cities in that its leaders were able to set aside enough land for future parks well in advance. At least they think it’s enough for the foreseeable future.

The city has more than 30 park sites, covering 1200-plus acres, almost two-thirds of which is undeveloped. The challenge now is developing those sites for better access.

To this end, Lacey is seeking voter approval of a tax measure this fall that would speed up work to add athletic fields, create and fix up trails, and add recreational amenities or programs for all ages.

The City Council voted 6-to-1 to put Proposition 1 on the Nov. 6 ballot and raise an estimated $2.7 million a year for parks and recreation.

Prop. 1 would do add a 47 cents property tax per $1,000 of assessed value, costing about $11.75 per month in tax for the owner of a $300,000 home and lot, officials say.

We agree that passage of Prop. 1 can let Lacey bring more livability to a city that always seemed in a rush to grow rather than invest right away in amenities that make the place nicer to live in.

Passage of Prop. 1 also creates a city Metropolitan Parks District (run directly by the City Council) to oversee or manage the new parks funds. Olympia voters gave the OK to an “MPD” three years ago, and Tumwater voters are being asked to do the same this fall. A property tax increase was part of the request in every case.

In a better world, South Sound’s sister cities – Olympia, Lacey and Tumwater – would have gotten on board to create a single regional parks district like the one created 111 years ago to serve Tacoma. But that ship sailed. Olympia went its own way; the other cities are, too.

Mayor Andy Ryder argues that local parks are a key part of the quality of life in the growing city, which counts nearly 86,000 people inside the city’s urban-growth band that surrounds city limits like thick pie crust.

Ryder is pledging that new funds would not be used to replace current commitments or spending on parks. But there is nothing binding to keep the city spending $3.6 million a year for parks maintenance through its public works agency – or to keep spending general budget funds for parks operations.

Prop. 1 is opposed by Edwin Pole, a Libertarian Party advocate who helped write the opposition statement in the Thurston County voter pamphlet. Pole and his Libertarian allies say the tax request is just not needed.

Pole told The Olympian Editorial Board this past week that the city collects enough taxes and should focus its work on family-friendly parks. That could include places to sit, picnic tables and play equipment.

But Lacey’s rapid growth is leading to a lot more compact housing, whether in single family residences, multiplexes or apartment units.

And former mayor Graeme Sackrison, who helped write a voter pamphlet statement in favor of Prop. 1, told the Editorial Board that the need for recreation space must keep up as the population surges.

Currently the city strains to expand trails or provide new access or new programs in parks, according to Jen Burbidge, Lacey parks and recreation director.

If voters agree to tax themselves, Burbidge said the 2017 city parks plan, which began two years earlier with public outreach, can guide the work.

One top priority is to expand parks offerings that serve all ages and that build community spirit. Another is to maintain what the city has, to expand or add trails that connect schools and other parks with neighborhoods, to add facilities in less-served and natural areas, and to protect historical sites.

New money can free the city to match state grants or to join with partners on projects.

But Pole is sharply critical of the indoor regional sports facility for which a feasibility study is under way. One idea is to put it on city land across the street from the Lacey-Thurston County Regional Athletic Complex at Steilacoom and Marvin roads.

An indoor facility would meet a need during wet months, according to Scott Spence, city manager. Ryder says any indoor sports building or new RAC fields could enlist private financial partners such as Saint Martin’s University, schools or others.

Pole raises another concern: that family-oriented parks are more worthy of investing than those for organized sports leagues. But Lacey has about 18 neighborhood parks and there are plans to develop three other properties for this purpose.

In the end, Prop. 1 is a tax increase, but we support it – based on the need. Though Lacey voters approved a small sales tax hike for road work in February 2017, the last parks measure approval was a bond issue in 2002.

As Lacey emerges as a vibrant, business-friendly city, better parks can let it grow into an even better place to live and work – and play.