The city of Olympia is finalizing a proposed tax increase that would bolster the park system and help meet public demand for more park land.
The city’s Finance Committee will fine-tune details for establishing an Olympia Metropolitan Parks District. If approved by voters, the district would charge 54 cents per $1,000 of assessed property value and generate about $3 million a year from taxpayers within city limits.
The Olympia City Council is expected to take action on a revised proposal July 7. The city has until Aug. 4 to submit a resolution to Thurston County and get the measure on the Nov. 3 ballot.
If voters say yes by a simple majority in November, the city will start receiving the extra revenue in January 2017, said parks director Paul Simmons.
The main goal with the proposed tax is to create a more sustainable budget, according to city leaders. Olympia faces a $3 million shortfall by 2019 without any new sources of revenue.
Councilman Jim Cooper said he is unsure how to keep the park system as it is now without adding new revenue or cutting other services. He said the proposal is “about this council taking the reins and putting money back” into the park system.
Top priorities for the new money, aside from maintenance and safety, include buying more park land — such as some or all of the 150-acre LBA Woods in southeast Olympia. The extra money would also go toward restoring the Voted Utility Tax. The latter was a 3 percent tax increase approved by voters in 2004 to help the city buy 500 acres of new park land. However, the city has bought only 63 acres of park land in the decade since that measure passed.
Other possibilities include the creation of a fund to repair Percival Landing or to buy the Capital Center Building on the isthmus, according to the city.
“Olympia really has a passion for parks,” Councilwoman Jeannine Roe said Tuesday, reiterating a desire to preserve open space and natural habitat. “Every bit that we can save now is a gift to our children in the future.”
More than a dozen citizens also expressed support for the metropolitan parks district during Tuesday’s council meeting, including several residents who urged the city to buy the LBA Woods parcel before it’s lost to development.
Other residents urged the council to consider a draft ordinance submitted by a group under the name Coalition for Parks Advocates. The coalition’s draft ordinance restores both the voted and non-voted utility taxes for parks, and also creates an enforcement mechanism so that funding cannot be diverted. The coalition includes representatives from the Olympia Coalition for Ecosystems Preservation, LBA Woods Park Coalition, Friends of the Waterfront, Olympia Capitol Park Foundation, and Olympians for Livable Community.
Despite general council support for establishing the parks district, the council was somewhat split Tuesday regarding the process surrounding the district’s formation.
Mayor Stephen Buxbaum and Councilwoman Julie Hankins both opposed a motion to present a revised proposal for council approval in July, saying there were still too many unanswered questions.
Buxbaum prefers to wait for the parks department to finish a comprehensive report on future projects and neighborhood feedback. He also called for more concrete details on how the additional money will be spent, noting the “community supports parks when they know what they’re getting with their money.”
Hankins warned of the potential devastation that could result if the measure were to fail at the polls. They noted that aside from the November ballot, the measure could also go before voters in February or April 2016 and, if approved, still generate revenue on the same timetable.
“I’m OK with waiting to get questions answered,” Hankins said. “If it means waiting six months, let’s take the time to do this right.”