Vancouver weighs vote to create tax for parks

Council mulls asking voters for levy of 35 cents per $1,000

By Andrea Damewood, Columbian staff writer

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Vancouver voters are likely to see a vote on a property tax levy to create a city metropolitan parks district this November — but for a smaller amount than planned.

The city council on Monday lowered the amount it will ask people to give, going from a planned 53 cents per $1,000 of assessed value levy to drafting plans for a 35 cents per $1,000 of assessed value tax. The latter rate would cost the owner of a $200,000 home $70 a year.

But while a lower tax rate may help sell the vote, staff members told the council they may face one large roadblock: Vancouver is hovering dangerously close to its state mandated property tax levy maximum. What that means is that Vancouver will have to ask residents for two votes: one this November to create a new parks district, and another in 2013 to protect the levy from losing money if and when the city hits its maximum levy capacity of $5.90 per $1,000 of assessed value.

Hitting the maximum levy capacity, which happens as assessed home values decline and the percentage of taxes charged goes up proportionally, means that lesser priority taxing districts — such as parks — are subject to what's known as proration, or having their revenues chopped to fit in under that $5.90 lid.

"It does ultimately impact the potential revenue stream from a levy," Vancouver-Clark Parks and Recreation Director Pete Mayer told the city council.

The city's parks and recreation department has been slashed in half over the last decade, with staff, services, programs and maintenance eliminated to make budgetary ends meet. A parks district with a levy rate of 35 cents per $1,000 of assessed value would bring in an additional $4.5 million, the approximate cost to operate the department. However, any levy would not totally fund parks and recreation: Vancouver's general fund would still need to chip in about $4.25 million to pay for debt service, indirect costs and depreciation and deferred maintenance.

Still, without a levy, Mayor Tim Leavitt said "the writing is on the wall," the city's parks department will continue to be slashed to pay for public safety.

"It's very difficult to predict what voters are going to say, but it doesn't hurt to ask," Leavitt said.

The council's most conservative members, Councilors Jeanne Stewart and Bill Turlay, also said they support a vote, although both mentioned their wariness toward increasing the burden to taxpayers.

Councilor Jack Burkman said that having two votes to create a fully functional metropolitan parks district may be an incredibly confusing and "really problematic" thing to sell the voters.

If voters approve a parks district and levy in November, a second vote could happen as soon as early 2013 to ask voters to protect it from proration. State law allows voters to protect up to 25 cents per $1,000 of assessed value from being reduced, and it sits on top of the $5.90 maximum levy capacity.

Without that protection, by 2017, city budget forecasts show that a parks district may only be able to pull in 28 cents per $1,000 of assessed value before hitting the maximum. Mayer and his staff had originally recommended a 53 cent per $1,000 of assessed value levy based on that 28 cent availability plus the 25 cent proration. But after a review of state laws, the city attorney's office found that the vote to create the district — plus the second one to protect it — couldn't be on the same ballot.

Mayer acknowledged that the change will make the tough job of asking for more tax dollars even more difficult.

But, he added, that if a majority of people say they want to pay for parks in November, they're also going to want to make sure the full amount they approve goes to parks.

"They might say, 'I want to have confidence as a voter, that what I'm assessed is actually going to parks, that the full amount is in fact going to parks and recreation,'" Mayer said.

A 35 cents per $1,000 of assessed value levy would still allow Vancouver to repair community center floors, locker rooms and HVAC systems; replace worn fitness equipment and improve customer lobby areas; replace playgrounds and improve sport courts; expand health and wellness programs for older adults; preserve its Access to Recreation program; restore camps and services for the disabled; expand Teen Center days and hours; bring back three after school programs; and more.

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