May 7, 2014
Vol: 21 No: 19

Community & Editorial

Ballot misleads voters about how much authority they would grant a new Metropolitan Parks District

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In a recent 8-0 vote the Seattle City Council overwhelmingly approved an August primary ballot measure to create a $54 million Metropolitan Park District (MPD). (Councilmember Tom Rasmussen was not in attendance.) Contrary to what councilmembers say, it’s not a simple renewal of our past parks levy, which lasted eight years. Nor is it some sort of minor change in how our parks are run.

Instead, the MPD amounts to a permanent regressive tax, and it carries substantial impacts for low-income and working-class homeowners.

In August voters will be asked to support the creation of a separate municipal corporation that effectively can run forever. It would double the tax from the current 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. The new levy would start in 2016. But under state law, the MPD could raise that tax even higher:  all the way up to 75 cents per $1,000 assessed value or $375 a year on the same home.

But under state law, the MPD in later years (even next year, for that matter) could raise that tax even higher: all the way up to 75 cents per $1,000 assessed value or $375 a year on the same home. And there is no six- or eight-year limit. It can run forever with no opportunity for the voters to go to the polls and repeal it. There is no going back, unless the MPD board decides to dissolve itself. 

That’s never happened in other jurisdictions where voters approved these things. Come to think of it, have we ever seen a group of electeds or any government body give up such broad and permanent taxing authority? It’s essentially a permanent annual blank check.

Even though our 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 a 180-day notice by the council.

The city council’s Select Committee on Parks Funding web page also suggests another option: Vote against a councilmember during his or her next reelection campaign. But since councilmembers are ceding day-to-day control of the MPD to an unelected oversight committee, any councilmember can easily pass the buck. 

An MPD is not subject to the city charter, nor is it bound by any other city requirements for hearings or other forms of public input.

Voter approval of this levy would do more than authorize the MPD to raise taxes. It would grant the MPD authority to manage all park assets, buy, sell and condemn land, even undertake business on or off park land, or even sell off, commercialize or privatize our park assets.

But the proposed ballot measure title language makes it impossible to figure out how a “yes” vote will affect voters’ wallets or the future of city parks. 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 Councilmembers. 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.”

The proposed title fails to meet election standards described in state law because it neither offers a “concise description of the measure” nor does it “clearly identify the proposition to be voted on.” Written as proposed, voters will have no idea what their votes will do.

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, improve, sell, or acquire Seattle park land and facilities, 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 councilmembers, will contract with the city for park purposes.”

Ultimately, City Attorney Pete Holmes will have final say on the ballot title language. We’ve sent him our proposed changes. If the language doesn’t change voters could authorize the city council to raise their property taxes and remove parks authority from resident control.

Let’s hope that doesn’t happen.

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