Divided council pushes Olympia park tax one step closer to November ballot

A proposed tax increase that would raise $3 million a year for the Olympia park system has taken a big step toward November’s ballot.

In a 4-3 vote Tuesday night, a divided Olympia City Council approved the first reading of an ordinance to establish a Metropolitan Parks District.

If passed by the council on a second reading July 21, the proposal will then go before voters in the Nov. 3 general election.

If voters say yes by a simple majority, the new district would charge taxpayers 54 cents per $1,000 of assessed property value. The district is expected to generate about $3 million a year for park acquisition and maintenance. The money would start flowing into city coffers in early 2017.

Councilman Jim Cooper and the city’s finance committee have been a driving force behind the proposed district. The city faces a $3 million budget shortfall by 2019 without any new sources of revenue, and the parks department can barely maintain its current inventory.

The district would have the power to stimulate economic development while fulfilling an earlier promise to buy more park land, Cooper said. That promise involves a 3 percent tax increase that was passed by voters in 2004 to help buy 500 acres of new park land. So far, the city has purchased 63 acres.

Cooper also warned that if the district fails to materialize, the city will be unable to acquire new park space and may eventually make cuts across the park system.

“Our parks continue to be overused because there’s not enough of them to meet the demand,” he told the council Tuesday.

Mayor Stephen Buxbaum alongside council members Julie Hankins and Steve Langer voted against the proposal Tuesday. Despite general support for the district itself, the three council members expressed concern over unanswered questions and a lack of consensus for how the money would be spent.

The ordinance would create an advisory committee, but Langer said that committee’s role is unclear as to how it would mesh with the current Parks and Recreation Advisory Committee, for example. He wants to wait until the parks department finishes a comprehensive report that will detail future park projects based on neighborhood feedback.

Hankins said the ordinance raises more questions than it answers, such as whether the district would create unattainable expectations for the city, or whether the city can limit the influence of special interest groups when it comes to park decisions.

“The community should be able to understand the impact and implications,” Hankins said.

Buxbaum said he wants to see completion of the parks plan before moving forward with the Metropolitan Parks District.

“I think it is a pathway to the kind of revenue that we need to meet the interests and appetites of this community,” he said before adding a caveat. “I am very concerned this approach is forcing something on the council rather than building consensus and agreement and finding a path forward by answering legitimate and reasonable questions.”

However, a handful of citizens from local park advocacy groups showed up Tuesday to praise the proposed district. As for buying more park land, Jerry Reilly of the Olympia Capitol Park Foundation said the measure “puts us back on track” following the recession.

“We stand ready to help in any way to explain this to the voters of Olympia and help it get the majority vote that it needs to go into effect,” Reilly said.

Cristiana Figueroa of the LBA Woods Park Coalition said her group endorses the district, and said “the time is now” for putting the measure before voters. The coalition of residents is working to protect 150 wooded acres from development in southeast Olympia.

“It’s a fantastic idea,” Figueroa said. “We’re going to have the park system that we dream of.”