"I don't know about you, but I need a daily hit of green," says Barbara Wright, a public-health advocate and former parks director for King County. No, she's not talking about pot. (Sorry!) What she's talking about are the mental, physical, and community health benefits of a robust public parks system.
And Seattle has an impressive one: Our more than 400 parks cover approximately 11 percent of the city's land, and run the gamut from small green spaces above freeways to lush, expansive forests. There's a 130-year-old park (Denny), a 500-plus-acre park (Discovery), a reclaimed gas plant (Gasworks), a former landfill (Genesee), and multiple converted military bases. There are beaches, lakes, bike trails, hikes, camping, community centers, sports fields, playgrounds, gardens, a grand arboretum—the list is extensive and diverse.
From a cafe in the heart of Capitol Hill, Wright points out that parks make it easier for people to live in an increasingly dense city, where apartment and condo dwellers live without backyards, since a public park is often steps away. "Look at Cal Anderson [Park], how important Cal Anderson is to this dense community," Wright says. As the lots surrounding the park have sprouted stories of new tenants in the last few years, it's become a universal backyard for the rapidly growing neighborhood. Public parks, says Wright, offer city residents places to exercise, meditate, gather. They make the city appealing to businesses, which can attract employees to a beautiful city. Community centers offer education, child care, space to socialize.
Yet while the city has funded the parks system with regular levies, the Seattle Parks Department still reports a $267 million backlog in maintenance projects citywide. The city is getting dangerously close to its levy capacity, a legal lid on how much property taxes can be raised even if voters want to pay for new services. We're looking at potentially funding more of our own basic services, like transportation, with levies, as the county and state can't or won't help pay. And we'll be voting this fall on a new levy to pay for the beginning of a universal pre-K program. We just can't raise the necessary park money this way, says Wright, who headed a city parks committee charged with finding a solution to the problem.
They found one: a city parks district. State law allows municipalities to create taxation districts for parks, or what's called a metropolitan parks district, creating a more permanent funding mechanism. Wright says six-year funding levies have fatal flaws: They're subject to the political whims of whatever leaders at the time think will be popular with voters, and running those campaigns requires enormous effort and money. The mayor and city council approved the committee's idea, placing a parks district measure on this August's primary ballot. It creates a distinct municipal body, governed by the city council, with the authority to collect taxes each year to fund parks, taxes that are currently set at 37 cents per thousand dollars of assessed home value (or $148 per year on a $400,000 home).
And therein lies the problem, say activists galvanizing to oppose the creation of the parks district. "It's a positive that they have to come back to voters" every six years for most levies, says Don Harper, who's helping lead an anti-parks-district campaign. Harper says a levy is essentially a contract with the taxpayers: Here's how we want to use your money, vote yes if you like the idea. With what Harper and opponents call a "permanent tax," they say that accountability is lost.
It's beyond tough to dissolve a parks district, they argue, and technically all that voters would be approving in August is its creation—not what it's paying for or how it'll work. That stuff all resides in what's called an interlocal agreement (ILA), also passed by the city council. Harper is not a fan. His campaign fears that the council won't be accountable enough, that the ILA can be amended too greatly, and that the city will bleed taxpayers dry—the parks district will technically be able to tax at about double the proposed rate—to fund things like lavish salaries for parks officials and a bourgeois waterfront park for tourists.
That's a bunch of bunk, says Wright. "I don't know how you could get a stronger mechanism" for governing the parks system than by directly electing the governing board—which, again, will be the city council—and having the ability to vote them out. "We're getting caught in the rhetoric and forgetting how important parks are to people," she says. The point of the district is simply to keep the parks, and therefore the city, healthy and maintained regardless of political winds or economic ups and downs, she says.
But the opposition, while scrappy, recently nabbed the endorsement of the League of Women Voters, and their campaign is stocked with well-connected neighborhood activists.
Good luck telling the two sides apart while they're battling it out: The pro-parks-district campaign is called Seattle Parks for All, and the anti-parks-district campaign is called Our Parks Forever.
This article has been updated since its original publication.