Proposed tax would raise $3 million a year for Olympia parks

The ball is rolling on a proposal to raise taxes in the name of Olympia parks.

The city’s Finance Committee is recommending a measure for this fall’s ballot that would establish an Olympia Metropolitan Parks District.

If approved by voters, the new parks district would charge 54 cents per $1,000 of assessed property value — generating about $3 million a year from taxpayers within city limits.

No decision has been made. However, the proposal is intended to stave off a mounting budget deficit. Without any new sources of revenue, the city faces a $3 million shortfall by 2019, according to staff.

The idea for a park tax surfaced in January during the Olympia City Council’s annual retreat. At a study session Tuesday, the council further discussed the city’s financial conundrums, especially as they relate to the park system.

One concern among council members was the lack of a strategy for spending the extra tax money if voters say yes.

“The community has an expectation and an appetite for investing in the park system,” Mayor Stephen Buxbaum said at Tuesday’s study session. “We need to explain what they’re going to get with their money.”

Passion for parks is evident in Olympia. According to a recent survey, nearly three-fourths of voters support a tax increase to pay for park maintenance and acquisition.

However, the Parks Department faces a funding gap of $500,000 in 2016. In addition, Percival Landing on the downtown waterfront will require millions of dollars to repair and restore.

Another potential problem with the proposed tax is trust. Council members Nathaniel Jones and Cheryl Selby noted the 3 percent utility tax increase that was approved by voters in 2004 to help buy about 500 acres of new park land. In the 10 years since that measure passed, the city has bought only 63 acres of park land.

The new tax is seen as one piece of a larger puzzle to build a more sustainable budget.

“There’s a lot more work to be done,” Jones said Tuesday. “This is one step in trying to get us back into balance.”

The Finance Committee will flesh out the proposal in the coming weeks, then bring it back for further council discussion June 2 and possibly June 9. On the latter date, the parks staff is expected to present a comprehensive report to the council regarding future park projects and neighborhood feedback on parks.