Vancouver agrees to ask voters for parks funding

Department has seen its staff cut in half since 2008

By Andrea Damewood, Columbian staff writer

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Vancouver voters will have a say in the future of city parks and recreation services this November.

The city council on Tuesday, March 27, narrowly agreed to put a property tax levy to create a new Vancouver metropolitan parks district on the Nov. 6 ballot, where it will share space with the presidential election and possibly a C-Tran sales tax measure for light rail and bus rapid transit.

In a 4-3 split, the city council decided to ask for money for the struggling department, which has had its staff cut in half since 2008. The city council would also act as the new park district’s governing board.

What wasn’t decided Tuesday was just how much voters could be asked to approve -- that’s set for a workshop in May and a final decision in the first week of June.

The parks district could levy up to 75 cents per $1,000 of a home’s assessed value, although the council indicated it would likely consider a levy rate in the range of 35 cents to 50 cents per $1,000 assessed value (or about $70 to $106 annually for the average homeowner).

Without new taxes, the department will be forced to continue cuts to programs that benefit the disabled and low-income people, staff told the city council during a four-hour meeting at City Hall. In about six years, the erosions would lead to major degradations of service, City Manager Eric Holmes said.

Mayor Tim Leavitt -- who was joined by Councilors Jeanne Harris, Larry Smith and Jack Burkman in favor of a levy -- said that’s why avote should be had.

“If (voters) defeat the measure, we’ve heard it loud and clear they don’t support it,” Leavitt said. “And we’ll continue to make cuts ... but we’d have to do that anyway.”

Parks district

A single ballot measure would allow for the creation of a metropolitan parks district, raise the levy and appoint the city council as the district’s board.

The measure would pay for city parks and recreation only; separate agreements would be worked out for the Vancouver Clark Parks and Recreation Department’s service of county parks.

Councilors Bart Hansen, Jeanne Stewart and Bill Turlay said they opposed a parks levy on the grounds that they’d rather see Vancouver, which hasn’t asked voters for new money in more than a decade, go out for a public safety levy.

“We have significant problems with our public safety,” Hansen said, noting expected shortfalls in 2013. “I think we should be going out (for police and fire) this year.”

Stewart said she was worried about voter fatigue, and a parks vote first could jeopardize support for another levy in a few years.

“My concern is if we send this out to pass it first, and we come back with a measure for police or fire, I think citizens could legitimately say, ‘Why didn’t you bring the police and fire to us first?’” Stewart said.

Burkman said that with this November’s turnout expected to be at 85 percent, about the same as the 2008 presidential election, now is the time to ask. Parks has done all it can to cut costs; Burkman said he isn’t persuaded the same has happened with the police and fire departments.

Smith pointed out that parks have borne a disproportionate amount of cuts as the city has muddled its way through the recession.

“It has been a bottom feeder for many years,” he said, noting that at the same time, parks also has the highest level of volunteerism. “That’s why I’m very, very optimistic that if this goes out on the ballot, it would pass.”

Funding equation

No matter what the levy amount, it wouldn’t completely sever the parks department’s ties to the city’s general fund. Right now, about $9 million of the general fund goes to parks.

As a junior taxing district, the parks levy would be the first to be pro-rated downward if assessed values for homes continue to fall. For example, the most the city could ask for without risking pro-ration, is 53 cents per $1,000 of assessed value -- a figure that only would bring in about $7 million annually. That money would, however, pay for a backlog of deferred maintenance, and provide the opportunity for new amenities and limited purchases of new park land and development.

With a dedicated funding stream, a parks levy would also free up general fund money that was going to parks for other uses. For example, a parks levy of $3.25 million (which could be generated by a levy 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.

The city’s charter mandates that Vancouver provide some level of parks service; a move to a parks district would still satisfy that requirement.

The ballot measure’s proponents will have to rally against the poor publicity Clark County’s only other parks district has garnered. Voters in the unincorporated urban areas of Clark County narrowly approved the Greater Clark Park District in 2005, but it has fallen short of building all the 35 parks it promised. Clark County commissioners this year 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.

However, the county, not suspecting that home values would ever fall, did not move to protect its levy against pro-ration.

Vancouver Budget and Planning Manager Natasha Ramras said Tuesday that the city would move to protect the maximum amount allowed (the first 25 cents of the levy) against pro-ration for its first six years.

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