Vancouver explores taxing district for parks

Council members want more information before possibly going to voters

By Andrea Damewood, Columbian staff writer

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If passed, levy could be affected by home values

As what’s known as a junior taxing district, a Metropolitan Parks District’s levy revenue would be shrunk first if assessed values of homes fall — which they did considerably during the recession.

By law, the parks district could levy as much as 75 cents per $1,000 assessed value, but under the tax codes, only 25 cents per $1,000 — or $3.25 million — of a levy could be protected from being pro-rated if assessed values tumble.

The other 50 cents — or $6.5 million — could be cut.

A 25 cents per $1,000 of assessed value levy would cost the owner of a $200,000 home about $50 a year, Holmes said.

If the district was formed to fit the Vancouver city limits, the city council could also serve as the park district board. A separate five-member board could also be created.

Any levy would need 50 percent majority approval by voters.

— Andrea Damewood

A new Metropolitan Parks District in the city of Vancouver could raise as much as $10 million a year to prop up city parks and recreation centers.

The Vancouver City Council said it wants to hear more on asking voters to make parks and recreation -- cut every year since 2003, including 17 layoffs this month -- its own property tax-based district in August’s primary. The move would free the department from the city’s general fund, which also supports police, fire and streets.

What a levy would mean to the city-county partnership on Vancouver-Clark Parks & Recreation remains unclear at this point.

It would be its own taxing district like the Fort Vancouver Regional Library District. A property tax vote by law could ask for a maximum of 75 cents per $1,000 of assessed value, bringing in $10 million annually. Right now, the city’s general fund kicks in almost $9 million to support the department.

But City Manager Eric Holmes said asking for the maximum would be a “big ask.”

Instead, the workshops will allow the city council to discuss a range of options that would likely include a smaller levy, should it decide to go with a ballot measure at all.

Holmes said that as the city’s coffers shrink, there have been “regular, consistent and systemic cuts in parks,” to protect other higher-priority services. For example, parks staff has been cut in half over the last nine years.

Should a measure pass, parks would have a dedicated revenue stream -- and the general fund money that went to the parks department could be used in other areas, such as public safety, Holmes said.

For example, a parks levy of $3.25 million (which could be generated by

a levy rate of 25 cents per $1,000 of assessed value) would free up roughly enough general fund money to pay for all the police and fire department jobs that are currently supported by state and federal grants.

Yet, parks levy or no, general fund stability cannot be guaranteed.

The city manager also gave one caveat: The city’s general levy can go down when assessed values fall, so the general fund could wind up losing money anyway -- but that could happen with or without a separate parks district.

Enough support?

Still, the idea of a parks levy still isn’t an easy sell to every member of the city council.

Vancouver, which hasn’t asked for money in more than a decade, doesn’t have a clear picture of how much voter support it has.

But Mayor Tim Leavitt in January urged his fellow city councilors to get a parks vote on the ballot this year, and he did so again at a meeting Monday.

He, along with Councilors Jack Burkman, Larry Smith and Jeanne Harris, argued that because a Parks Blue Ribbon Commission wrapped up last year -- and recommended a parks district as its No. 1 solution -- now is the right time to go to voters.

“Parks has been bleeding to death for years,” said Smith, the city’s former Parks and Recreation director. “I spent six years of my life building parks and community centers and I’d hate to see those disappear.”

But Councilors Bart Hansen, Jeanne Stewart and Bill Turlay seemed to favor waiting and asking residents to approve a public safety levy, perhaps next year. However, Vancouver isn’t as far along in restructuring those departments.

“Are we going to decide here tonight to look at other options as well, like a fire and EMS levy?” Hansen questioned Monday.

“I think we’re focusing specifically on Parks and Recreation,” Leavitt replied. “I don’t think it’s appropriate to look at a fire levy when we’re just beginning a process of evaluating the delivery of fire services. Once we go through that process, as parks has already done, then we will be.”

“I disagree, Mr. Mayor,” Hansen replied.

In an email Tuesday, Parks Foundation Director Cheri Martin also urged supporters to contact city council members to ask for a levy.

“These are your parks and trails, and your recreation programs,” Martin wrote. “Let the city council members know you care and you advocate for the exploration of alternatives that prevent further cuts.”

Vancouver has 2,138 acres of parks, 23.4 miles of city trails and three recreation centers.

The idea of a Metropolitan Parks District isn’t new to Clark County or Washington state.

Voters in the unincorporated urban areas of Clark County narrowly approved a district in 2005, but the district has fallen short of building all the 35 parks it promised. Clark County commissioners this month officially put on hold the construction of 10 park projects that voters in Hazel Dell, Salmon Creek and other areas thought they would be getting when they authorized a maximum property tax rate of 27 cents per $1,000 of assessed value.

Tacoma has the state’s largest stand-alone parks district, which was formed in 1907.

Andrea Damewood: 360-735-4542; http://www.twitter.com/col_cityhall;andrea.damewood@columbian.com.