Why We Can’t Have Nice Things: Parks For All and Proposition 1

Oxbow Park. Photo by Omar Willey.Licensed CC-BY-SA.

Oxbow Park. Photo by Omar Willey.
Licensed CC-BY-SA.

Growing up, taxes paid for my summer vacation every year. No, the federal government didn’t finance my puberty; that was my father. Back in the days before companies like H & R Block became popular and people could file taxes on-line, my dad, who was a tax accountant, assisted about 50 clients a year in filing their return.

Besides the personal benefits of his “side job,” my dad was a big tax guy. He’d often tell me that without taxes, we’d have no fire departments, no police departments, no spiffy super highways, public transportation or Social Security. And no parks–at least nice ones. There was a park behind our house, with a baseball field, a swimming pool, and if teenagers spray-painted dirty words on the slides or monkey bars, the city would clean it up.

Seattleites like nice things. Voters have been generous with park levies through the years but one’s expiring this year. On ballots being mailed out this week, city residents are now being asked to vote on the formation of a Seattle Park District. The District would fund, maintain and operate parks, community centers, pools and other recreation facilities. It would also be a taxing authority that could levy property taxes above the current “lid” the state imposes on the city – 75 cents per $1,000 of valuation. The Seattle City Council would serve as the governing body of the Park District.

“Right now our parks compete with other city services like police, fire and human services for limited city funds,” the group Seattle Parks For All says in its campaign brochure. As an example, the city would now have some wiggle room to tax itself for things like much-needed transportation after getting no help from the state legislature and King County taxpayers. The city’s political establishment is firmly behind the districts–the mayor, the council, and several state representatives have endorsed the measure. Parks For All contributors are headed by the Seattle Parks Foundation, Woodland Park Zoo and the Seattle Aquarium.

Maintenance and improvements to city parks has moved sluggishly in recent years due to the recession and initiatives like Tim Eyman’s I-747, which placed a cap on property taxes (and was ruled unconstitutional six years after it passed). The web site www.seattlegov/parks/legacy/ lists the renovations expected with the passage of Prop. 1–everything from picnic shelters at Golden Gardens Park up north, to bathhouse renovations at Seward Park in the south.

Don Harper says he “loves parks but the levies should stay in place.” Harper represents Our Parks Forever and wrote the opposition statement that appears in the King County Official Voters Pamphlet for the Aug. 5 election.

“Proposition 1 would create an entirely new, independent agency that will take over our parks,” according to Our Parks Forever. “This agency would exist forever–we would not be able to change it. It would not have new elected leadership. The City Council has chosen to put themselves in control of the district. (The Park District) would not be accountable to the people of Seattle.”

If Harper’s group loves parks it appears they’re assuming that Seattle will continue to pass the levies, ad nauseum. In the groups favor, putting things up for a vote isn’t just the Seattle way, it’s really the Washington state way. For example, rather than crafting any gun laws in Olympia, the state legislature decided to put two competing gun measures on the ballot in the November election. Local politicians often seem like they don’t want to take responsibility for anything. Park Districts might be downright revolutionary as local pols are actually taking control of a situation.

In rebuttal to the opposition statement, Ken Bounds, a former Seattle Parks Superintendent, responded, “Districts require strict transparency and accountability, including a citizen oversight committee and annual performance audits. It increases oversight, not reduces it.”

Plus, if our politicians don’t oversee our parks properly that’s a good reason to vote the scoundrels out of office. Because Seattleites have shown in the past that they like nice things.