Some voter-approved parks put on hold

By Stephanie Rice, Columbian Vancouver city government reporter

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Facing a potential shortage of money to pay for parks maintenance and operation, the Greater Clark Parks District will hold off on building nine projects.

The funding shortage, directly tied to a poor housing market and falling assessed values, means the district’s promise to voters will fall short, officials said Friday.

The parks district, established in 2005 by voters who live in Hazel Dell, Salmon Creek and other urban areas outside of city limits, has built 23 neighborhood and community parks.

Four projects underway — Chinook Neighborhood Park, Covington Neighborhood Park, Douglas Carter Fisher Neighborhood Park and Luke Jensen Sports Park — will be completed, said Heath Henderson, engineering and construction manager for Clark County Public Works.

Once those four projects are completed, Clark County will have built 26 of the program’s 35 parks, along with 26 of its 41 sports fields.

Nine projects — Curtin Creek and Pleasant Valley community parks and Dogwood, East Minnehaha, Kozy Kamp, Otto Brown, Salmon Creek Community Club, Sorenson and Tower Crest neighborhood parks — will be delayed, Henderson said.

In 2005, park district voters authorized a maximum property tax rate of 27 cents per $1,000 of assessed value to pay for maintenance and some construction.

The cost of buying land and planning, designing, permitting and constructing the parks are paid for by park impact fees, which are collected through new residential construction, and real estate excise taxes, grants and donations.

Public Works Director Pete Capell said approximately $5.6 million in property taxes, which had been budgeted for construction, will be reserved for park upkeep to prevent a shortfall in maintenance and operations.

“Maintaining what we have is far more important than building new,” Capell said Friday during a meeting with the Vancouver-Clark Parks and Recreation Advisory Commission.

The risk, Capell said, is that since there are limits on how much money can be collected for local taxing districts through property taxes, the parks district's status as a junior taxing district could mean its collection rate would be lowered.

Currently, approximately $3 million is collected for maintenance and operations. That pool of money could shrink to $750,000 a year, depending on whether assessed values continue to fall and, if so, by how much.

“We don’t know what the numbers are, but we know there’s a risk,” Capell said.

Assessed values decreased by an average of 12.5 percent across Clark County in 2009, followed by another 8 percent in 2010.

Numbers for 2011, which will be used for taxes due in 2012, will be available later this year.

Capell said the parks district could have protected 25 cents per $1,000 of assessed value had it asked the voters for such a guarantee.

Fire districts, for example, are protected at 50 cents per $1,000 of assessed value.

Along with shelving nine projects, officials said Friday that maintenance will be reduced in existing parks.

That could mean mowing, fertilizing and emptying trash could happen less frequently.

The county also hopes volunteers will step up and help with routine tasks, such as picking up trash.

Of the nine shelved projects, the county expects to complete design of Otto Brown, Dogwood and Tower Crest neighborhood parks and complete planning for East Minnehaha, Kozy Kamp, Salmon Creek Community Club and Sorenson neighborhood parks.

Construction will be put off indefinitely.

The larger community parks, Curtin Creek and Pleasant Valley, won’t be built until the neighborhood parks are completed.

Last summer, county commissioners opted to focus on completing smaller neighborhood parks.

Stephanie Rice: 360-735-4508 or stephanie.rice@columbian.com.