The Seattle City Council has approved a ballot measure for the August primary to create a $48 million Metropolitan Park District (MPD). Contrary to how council members portray it, this is not a simple renewal of our current, six-year parks levy.
Instead, the MPD would lead to a permanent regressive tax, with substantial impacts for low-income and working-class homeowners, while stripping anyone who cares about our parks of their ability to influence park policy.
If voters approve the measure, a separate municipal corporation called the Seattle Parks District is created that will operate essentially like the port authority. It effectively can run forever because voters will have practically no way to reverse their decision.
Its first order of business would be to double the tax from the current parks levy set to expire this year — from $95 to $185 annually for the owner of a $500,000 house, or 37 cents per $1000 of valuation, starting in 2016. But there is nothing preventing the MPD from raising that tax even higher, all the way up to 75 cents per $1,000 assessed value, or $375 a year on the same home.
Unlike a levy, there’s no six-year limit meaning voters would no longer have an opportunity to review periodically how their funds are being used or give their approval to renew.
Even though the City Council insists the powers of the MPD will be limited by an accompanying “interlocal” agreement, that agreement can easily be voided or amended with only 180-day notice by council members.
The council’s handpicked Select Committee on Parks Funding insists there is accountability: Since current council members will sit on the MPD board in an “ex-officio” capacity and, on paper, are charged with running the MPD, voters can simply vote against a council member during his or her next reelection campaign. But since council members are ceding day-to-day control of the MPD over to an unelected oversight committee, they can easily pass the buck on to this body.
An MPD is not subject to the city charter so citizens cannot overturn a MPD decision via the initiative process, and it’s not bound by any other city requirements for hearings or other forms of public input. There’s nothing standing in the way of the MPD selling off or privatizing parkland or, for that matter, turning Discovery Park into Disneyland.
Far-fetched? Perhaps, but Seattle’s parks system is constantly under pressure from special-interest groups seeking permanent low-cost space for their for-profit or nonprofit ventures. Some of these interests have huge budgets with paid lobbyists encamped at City Hall. An MPD elevates the influence of these groups, while lessening the influence of those of us at the grassroots level committed to keeping our public parks open, free and, above all, public.
Under state law, the MPD has near-unlimited authority to manage all park assets, but it also can buy, sell and condemn any land — even your land — or launch business ventures on or off park land. Are you prepared to entrust any electeds with such authority?
Not what’s it about
For starters, we can’t even trust current council members to include in the ballot title an honest description of this measure.
Here’s how it reads: “This proposition would create the Seattle Park District to provide ongoing funding to maintain, operate and improve parks, community centers, pools and other recreation facilities and programs. The district would have the same boundaries as the City of Seattle and be governed by a board composed of the Seattle City Council members. It could exercise the powers described in state law, including levying a property tax and contracting with the City of Seattle to perform the district’s functions.”
Sounds benign, doesn’t it? This proposed title fails to meet state election standards because it neither offers a “concise description of the measure” nor does it “clearly identify the proposition to be voted on.”
The Seattle Displacement Coalition has proposed changes to the language to bring it into line with state law, so that voters will understand just what ballot measure asks of them: “This proposition creates a Seattle Metropolitan Park District, a separate municipal corporation and taxing authority under state law RCW 35.61 with boundaries identical to Seattle. The district may operate ours parks, improve, sell or acquire land, engage in business activity and, upon voter approval, may raise annual property taxes up to 75 cents per $1,000 of valuation ($375 dollars on a $500,000 home). Its board, consisting of City Council members, will contract with the city for park purposes.”
City Attorney Pete Holmes will have final say on the ballot title language. If the language doesn’t change by the time you read this, parks advocates may be in court asking a judge to do so.
Come August, we don’t want voters to make a decision they don’t fully understand: They could authorize City Council to raise their property taxes substantially and remove parks authority from resident control...forever.
JOHN V. FOX and CAROLEE COLTER are coordinators for the Seattle Displacement Coalition (www.zipcon.net), a low-income housing organization. To comment on this column, write to MPTimes@nwlink.com.