In our view: New Parks on Hold

Lingering economic crisis forces countyto halt projects in unincorporated areas

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Unfortunate but necessary. Those two words are uttered in the aftermath of many budget decisions made by families and businesses as this infernal economic downturn lingers. Governments, too, must admit that, at some point, when austerity’s full potential has been explored, it’s time to bite the bullet.

Clark County did this back in the spring when the construction of nine new parks was suspended. This week, county officials put another painful chomp on that same bullet, pushing 10 park projects further back on the figurative shelf where they will remain until the economy improves. In other words, don’t hold your breath.

This indefinite suspension of local parks development is especially frustrating in Clark County, where devotion to open public places is continually demonstrated by parks patrons and voters. In 2005, voters in Hazel Dell, Salmon Creek and other urban areas outside of city limits raised their property taxes to create the Greater Clark Parks District, a junior taxing district.

It is in these areas where the parks projects are being shelved, and the reasons are obvious. When the district was created, it was thought that real estate excise tax revenues would flow forever. The cratering housing market brought an end to that, and the county decided to dedicate REET funds to paying off county building debt.

Painful as it is, the decision to curtail parks development in unincorporated areas was understandable. “Under these circumstances, the slowdown we announced last spring has become a full stop,” Public Works Director Pete Capell said in a Wednesday Columbian story. “We look forward to developing more neighborhood and community parks, sports fields and trails when the economy recovers to a greater extent.”

In recent years, it has been to the credit of Vancouver-Clark Parks and Recreation that significant progress was made toward fulfilling the dream expressed by voters in 2005. Two dozen of the 35 planned parks and more than half of the new sports fields have been finished. Covington and Douglas Carter Fisher neighborhood parks were completed in October, and the Luke Jensen Sports Parks is scheduled to open in March. Considering how long this economic crisis has hovered over the parks department, it’s amazing that this much work was accomplished.

That progress, though, is scant consolation to people who live near the 10 projects that are indefinitely suspended: the Curtin Creek and Pleasant Valley community parks, plus neighborhood parks in the Dogwood, East Minnehaha, Kozy Kamp, Otto Brown, Salmon Creek Community Club, Sorenson, Tower Crest and Chinook areas.

The ballot-measure victory remains a wise move for a couple of reasons. First, it unleashed about $12 million already accumulated for parks construction, pairing that fund with about $2 million annually created by the ballot measure for maintenance and some construction costs. Second, it was the right thing to do in unincorporated urban areas, where parks development was needed. Those financial commitments remain, but the county correctly believes it cannot commit to parks growth at this particular time.

Some day, we expect parks development will resume in unincorporated areas. Until then, local residents should recognize that county budget writers are backed into a corner, and it will take many months if not years to resume the schedule of building new parks.