Vancouver mayor pushes parks levy

Parks-recreation would betaken out of city budget and get own taxing district

By Andrea Damewood, Columbian staff writer

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Mayor Tim Leavitt on Friday urged his fellow council members to put a parks levy before voters this year -- a move that could free the struggling department from further cuts.

The city would move parks and recreation to a separate Metropolitan Parks District, taking it out of the general fund, which also supports police, fire and streets, and to its own taxing district like the Fort Vancouver Regional Library system.

“We all know that parks is highly supported by a core group of folks,” Leavitt said during a day-long budget meeting at the Artillery Barracks at the Fort Vancouver National Site. “Why not give folks in our community an opportunity to weigh in on it sooner than later?”

Details of how much the levy would ask for, or if it is even a viable option, remain unclear, but Leavitt asked staff to prepare a series of workshops on the topic as soon as possible.

Their goal could be a vote on a property tax increase as soon as the August primary, which would have a May deadline to be put on the ballot.

The Vancouver-Clark Parks and Recreation Department has faced regular budget cuts since 2003. After 17 employees are laid off next month, the department’s staff will have been cut by half.

But Vancouver, which is also in the process of redesigning its emergency medical service system, has a laundry list of items it could ask voters to support.

While some city council members seemed in favor of breaking the parks district away from the city budget, others said they’d like to wait and ask for more money for fire and emergency medical services next year instead.

“I really do believe the time is right to take this out this year -- it’s a year of visibility in parks and recreation,” said Councilor Jack Burkman, noting the highly publicized cuts the department is undergoing.

Councilor Bart Hansen said federal grants supporting police and fire jobs will run out over the coming years, and that he’d like to see money in place to fill that gap.

“I’d be concerned about putting all those eggs in that basket,” Hansen said.

Parks and recreation gets about $3 million annually from the general fund. If it were to go to a separate district, that $3 million could be used for public safety, Leavitt said.

Parks and recreation is the best prepared service to go before voters soon.

Last year, a Parks Blue Ribbon Commission finished convening, with a separate taxing district as one of its top recommendations. Emergency medical services’ redesign is getting under way this year; meaning a November vote is unrealistic.

Voters in the unincorporated urban areas of Clark County approved such a district in 2005 by a very slim margin, 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.

“There’s little credibility out there with (2005) Metropolitan Parks District, and now parks haven’t been built,” Councilor Larry Smith said. “Some people probably have buyer’s remorse. In some cases …they won’t be getting their park.”

The council will hear preliminary information on a parks levy Feb. 6, at which point it will say if it wants to pursue the vote further.

Councilor Jeanne Harris said the parks vote is her No. 1 priority for 2012. She said she highly values public safety, but parks and recreation is the department that’s really in trouble. “If the city does wish to advance a ballot measure between the two, public safety is a required service, parks is not,” Harris said. “So public service will be taken care of. Parks needs the help.”

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