Olympia parks need new financing

The city of Olympia agreed a few months ago to buy options on two parcels of land that could be developed into future parks.

One option was for land near LBA Park on the city’s southeast side; it would secure 75 acre of the LBA woods, as neighbors call it. The other is near Ken Lake on the southwest side of town.

In 20 years, 20,000 more people will be part of our capital city, so there’s an obvious need for parks and open lands to offer relief from greater urban density. Just as obvious is that no one is making new – or cheaper – land.

That makes Proposition 1, a tax measure on Olympia’s Nov. 3 ballot, especially timely. Though it is flawed, we support the measure because it gives city leaders the financial ability to buy land for parks in advance of the coming wave of population growth.

By putting new funds in the hands of a Metropolitan Parks District controlled by the City Council, Prop. 1 also gives the city a chance to catch up on deferred maintenance in existing parks and continue to pay for recreation programs.

But Prop. 1 is not the slam dunk for voters that it could have been, because the council rushed it to the ballot.

One problem that’s bothered us in recent months is the lack of a definitive city plan that ties the number, distribution and size of parks to common standards for urbanizing areas. Olympia’s comprehensive parks plan is being revised but won’t be finished until March after public hearings.

City manager Steve Hall says, however, that most work including outreach for the plan is done. Whatever voters choose, Hall says that park planners can see how much money they have for recreation programs when the plan is refined. To a degree, Hall is right.

Opponents are only half right when they suggest the city is getting a blank check and that there’s no idea which projects would move forward.

No list is spelled out in the proposed law. But six big projects have been under consideration: LBA woods, repairs to Percival Landing, the purchase and tear-down of the Capitol Center Building on the isthmus, completion of the Olympia Woodland Trail, development of the park along West Bay Drive, and a new community athletic field and park (likely along Yelm Highway).

Backers of Prop. 1 met late in the summer with our editorial board to make their pitch. Their coalition includes LBA woods activists including campaign co-chair Cristiana Figueroa-Kaminsky, isthmus-park advocate Jerry Reilly, Capitol Lake and Heritage Park advocates Allen Miller and Bob Jacobs, and others. Jacobs is a former mayor and was involved in the 2004 tax measure that raised utility taxes to pay for parks.

These advocates will certainly play a role when it comes time to pick specific projects.

In the middle of this campaign, private developer Ken Brogan announced plans to buy and renovate the Capitol Center Building. The ramshackle, nine-story building has been a target for a vocal group of activists who want the city to buy and demolish it for a Capitol Vista Park on the isthmus; the park could complement the state’s Heritage Park and city fountain and Budd Inlet boardwalk areas.

This sudden development was instructive in two ways:

First, Brogan’s announcement shows that things change; even if voters were promised a park, that pledge might be broken if Brogan gets financing and permits to move ahead.

Second, Brogan’s announcement affirms the argument that the city should not dither on other lands.

Opponents have a second major concern about this measure, which is that a companion ordinance earmarks 11 percent of the city’s general fund revenues for parks and maintenance in addition to the tax measure. This set-aside can be ignored only if a super-majority of the council agrees. That certainly limits the council’s flexibility to respond to other city priorities.

Despite these concerns, we still think even a flawed ballot measure deserves support.

The proposal is not too costly. Prop. 1 would collect up to 75 cents per $1,000 of assessed property value each year above current levels. Backers say they would only levy 54 cents initially – costing the owner of a $200,000 home about $108 yearly in new taxes.

That would be enough to let the city issue bonds for millions of dollars of land purchases, and provide revenue to reliably maintain and develop park land already under city control. It would ensure that city parks and recreation programs continue.

If the measure fails at the polls, we think critics like former council member Karen Rogers have a good suggestion. The city can redo its proposal and look for ways Olympia, Tumwater, Lacey and even Thurston County can work across city lines to create a metro parks district that serves our entire county.