Parks proposal must reconcile past, future

A tax proposal for Olympia parks is on the drawing boards for city voters. Whether it ultimately takes shape in time for the November ballot remains to be seen.

We're skeptical. But this is an excellent time for the Olympia City Council to explore what’s possible. Several properties may be available for public purchase, but they won’t be around forever – whether it’s buying woods next to LBA Park or removing a decaying high-rise building on the city’s isthmus.

“If we don’t do anything, we aren’t going to be able to buy any of the property people want us to,” says Jim Cooper, chair of the City Council’s Finance Committee who is crafting a plan that goes to the council Tuesday for consideration.

A key piece he’s working on is how to assure voters that new tax money will go into parks-land acquisition, development and maintenance of parks, and not be diverted. Cooper wants to create a Metropolitan Parks District to receive the new tax funds that could not be used for any other purpose. He’s also looking at ways to earmark additional money for parks out of the city’s general fund.

But Cooper and colleagues have their work cut out for themselves. Some like Mayor Stephen Buxbaum, who favors a park district, first want to see a parks plan update.

And making sure new tax money goes to parks is a credibility matter that could float or sink any ballot measure.

That’s because old-timers remember the major parks and sidewalks measure passed in 2004. There aren’t complaints about money earmarked for recreation-related sidewalks in that package, but money raised from the 3 percent increase in utility taxes didn’t get the promised results.

In fact, of the 500 acres of new parks and open-space outlined to voters at the time of the election, the city has managed to acquire just 63 acres.

The city had good reasons for falling short — the Great Recession was chiefly to blame for shifting priorities. But this diversion or dedication of funds to maintenance rather than new land purchases was done in the light of day and with the knowledge and consent of the City Council.

But that’s not an ideal record to run on if voters are being asked again to pony up and they think specific projects are in the viewfinder.

In fact, key players in the 2004 effort have been sharply critical, saying the city didn’t keep faith with its voters. Finding a way to make some peace with them — including activist Jim Lazar, former council member Karen Messner and former mayor Bob Jacobs — is essential.

Lazar, Messner and Jacobs want the city to re-pledge future revenues from the voter-approved utility tax to purchasing parks land and to take other steps that bring current budgeting practices in line with the vision they think voters blessed in 2004. But city manager Steve Hall says it’s not possible to restore the old funding mechanisms without cutting close to $1.2 million this year from other city programs.

Clearly some kind of compromise is needed. The metro parks concept looks like a piece of the answer.

As outlined by Hall and Cooper, a property tax levy of 54 cents per $1,000 of assessed home and land value raises about $3 million a year. Under a scenario accepted by the council’s Finance Committee, the city could devote the first $800,000 of proceeds into maintenance, freeing up past voter-approved utility taxes for use solely to acquire new land and develop parks.

The next $500,000 could go into major repairs such as the rose garden in Priest Point Park, and remaining funds could be put into other capital projects for parks, according to Hall.

Major sites such as LBA or purchase and demolition of the isthmus high rise would eat up much of the money. To swing those two deals together the city might need $14 million, according to Hall. Another major purchase costing potentially more than $12 million is a former berry farm along Yelm Highway.

Then there is another big repair due on the boardwalk bulkhead under Percival Landing along Fourth Avenue, which might get some state grant assistance; the city also has identified some 80 small parcels that are important wildlife habitat.

That brings us to another stumbling block: the city’s park priorities. Buxbaum has a good point about clarifying them and ranking projects in order of priority.

Still, we’re encouraged to see the effort by Cooper to build support for a ballot measure whether it’s in November or early next year. The city needs to invest if it will ever have enough parks to accommodate the potential 40 percent growth in population predicted over the next two decades. In forcing the issue Cooper is giving the city a chance to find focus.

Whatever the result, to be successful advocates need to find a middle path – reconciling our city’s promises of parks-funding in the past with its future needs – while finding agreement on priority projects that voters can support.