Christopher Williams, the acting superintendent for Seattle Parks and Recreation, told Parks employees via email that the cancer he fought off nearly a decade ago has returned. Williams took the reins of the Parks Department when then-Superintendent Tim Gallagher resigned after details came out about several expensive trips he has taken this year using Parks money. Calling on him to guide the Parks Department through tough upcoming budget cuts, on April 28 Mayor Mike McGinn named Williams Gallagher's successor, less than a week before he made his health announcement.
"I am currently working with my medical provider to determine the best course of treatment and consulting with my family regarding both short-term and long-term decisions," he said in the email. He was not entirely caught by surprise, he said, "Being a cancer survivor, I have gotten used to looking over my shoulder." Until he knows more, he urged employees that the department should "carry on business as usual."
The Parks Department is facing millions of dollars in budget shortfalls over the next two years, and the department is currently deciding where to make cuts for next year's budget. One possible scenario described to the Board of Park Commissioners by Parks Finance Director Carol Everson on March 25 calls for $10 million in cuts over the next two years and laying off 120 of its over 1,000 employees. After cutting $5 million from this year's budget, that means the next round of cuts will likely include significant service-level cuts, Everson told the Board.
Department leadership has already been in the public spotlight this year. Former Superintendent Gallagher pushed through an array of new Parks rules despite concern from the Board of Parks Commissioners, which only has an advisory role in Parks operations, and the public. The controversial new rules included a ban on smoking in parks and other rules that many argued would affect poor and homeless people disproportionately, such as bans on leaving personal items unattended, obstructing walkways, using bathrooms improperly (aimed at people taking sponge baths) and "Disrupting Department of Parks and Recreation business, events, or other sponsored activities." The Parks Board had voted against the smoking ban, and support was split concerning several of the other rules.
Gallagher decided, however, to ignore the advice and implemented the new rules despite the concerns. The day the news of his decision was released, Gallagher was on vacation. Within a day, public backlash proved so intense he eased the parks smoking ban to only cover play areas and beaches, and to within 25 feet of other patrons ["New Parks Code, even after flip-flop, still targets homeless," Feb. 24 - March 2]. When it came out that he had spent more than $7,000 of departmental funds on travel expenses for trips in March and April, Gallagher resigned.
Gallagher told the Seattle Times last week that resistance from City Hall to finding alternate ways to fund the Parks Department contributed to his decision to resign. Running a parks system out of a city is not sustainable, he said, and the city should create a municipal parks district that can bring in its own tax revenue.
As reported in Real Change April 14, Tom Byers, who served as deputy mayor for Paul Schell, and other parks supporters are working on a ballot measure that would create the Seattle Metropolitan Parks District and give it the ability to issue a parks-only property tax of 50 cents per $1,000 of assessed value ["Taxing district could reverse cutbacks," April 14-20].
Byers said that Tim Eyman's Initiative 747, which capped annual property tax increases at 1 percent, has made it so the Parks budget could not rise with inflation. This made Parks reliant on city funding at a time when the city is facing $60 million in budget cuts over the next two years.
City Council President Richard Conlin this week proposed a similar funding district for the Seattle Public Library, which is also facing cuts.