Trying to subsist on current resources will result in the city’s parks and community centers falling into disrepair, Aguirre says.
Not everyone agrees with that assessment, including Helf, who believes the parks department can come up with more funds. One avenue is the 2014 metropolitan park district levy, which gave the city the authority to levy as much as 75 cents per $1,000 on homeowners’ assessed property values. Currently, the city levies just 33 cents of the 75-cent-per-$1,000 maximum. Helf says if the park district is serious about fixing crumbling community centers like Green Lake’s, it could increase the tax, or find the money elsewhere. “I’d certainly pay another $30 a year to get a pool and community center that works,” Helf says.
But other parks advocates say it isn’t that simple. Michael Maddux, one member of the committee that came up with the metropolitan park district proposal, says the plan voters approved in 2014 was designed to backfill about $267 million in deferred maintenance to the city’s parks system, not to fund large capital projects like new community centers. Although the Park District Governing Board (composed of all nine members of the City Council) could direct dollars in a different direction after the current six-year levy cycle runs out, replacing pools and community centers would require additional funding, and “it was made very clear during the campaign that going up to the [levy] cap was not an option, because that would be such a dramatic increase,” Maddux says. Meanwhile, city officials say other potential revenue sources, such as real estate excise taxes, are already earmarked for other purposes.
Aguirre says there is another important issue as well. As the city grows and its population centers shift, it won’t be enough just to maintain our current parks and community centers. The city will have to decide how, and where, to expand the parks system to meet future demand, and how to fund that expansion. That may mean adding new community centers in parts of the city where there are gaps, like Wallingford and South Lake Union, or upgrading services in areas like Rainier Beach, which just received a new community center in 2013.
“We’re going to have to ask, what do the community center needs of the future look like?” Aguirre says. “And it may mean—and these are harder conversations to have—that Green Lake may not be the biggest challenge…. It’s one of 27 community centers, and it’s one of hundreds of amenities that the parks and recreation agency provides for its residents.”
Helf says Green Lake is different, because—unlike other neighborhood parks and community centers—it draws people from all over the city. “There’s some very disturbing language” in the 2016 Community Center Strategic Plan, Helf says, “which says that Green Lake is too white, it’s too wealthy, and it has too many homeowners” to merit immediate investment. “These conclusions that Parks reached are really inaccurate.”
City Council member Mike O’Brien, whose council district includes the Green Lake neighborhood, met with members of Helf’s group during his office hours at the Ballard branch library in April, where they showed up demanding that he pledge to oppose privatizing the community center. Although O’Brien didn’t go that far, he did say that he wouldn’t support any partnership that the community doesn’t want. “If the community is flatly opposed to it, I’m fine with that—we won’t do it,” O’Brien says. But, he cautions, “that money is not just going to magically appear to pay for this, so I would argue that we should stay flexible.”
District 5 City Council member Debora Juarez, who heads up the council’s parks committee, says Helf and her group’s protests are “not falling on deaf ears. Nothing is going to get built or done without community input, and if [a proposed partnership] doesn’t fit with that community and their needs, no one will impose something on them that they don’t want.” In fact, while there are plans underway to develop a process to come up with a long-term vision for the city’s parks system—and a discussion of public-private partnership is expected to be part of that—at press time, there was no timeline.
“If I were still in the private sector, I could think of 10 ways to fund this,” Juarez, a former private attorney, says.
That kind of creativity Juarez alludes to—whether it means privatization or some other funding mechanism—may be needed if what Aguirre asserts is true. “The reality is that we are never going to have the level of resources to meet the demands that are going to be placed on us. There’s always going to be a gap. My challenge is, how do I try to bridge that gap in creative and innovative ways?”
Syndicated from SeattleMag.com. Photo credit: Hayley Young.