Vancouver mulls tax to fund parks

A tax vote in November would increase the funds dedicated to parks, create a new metropolitan district

By Andrea Damewood, Columbian staff writer

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Vancouver parks

Vancouver’s park system includes:

• 108 city parks and open space properties; 72 are developed.

• 2,138 acres of parks.

• More than 23 miles of trails.

• Three recreation centers.

• 30 sports fields.

• Community gardens, play structures, skate parks, tennis courts, and a boat launch are among other amenities.

Source: City of Vancouver

Vancouver voters will be asked in November to approve a tax levy of 53 cents per $1,000 of assessed property value to create a metropolitan parks district to preserve and enhance Vancouver parks and recreation services, the city council decided Monday.

The victim of more than a decade at the bottom of the budgetary totem pole, the city’s parks and recreation department has weathered severe cuts, including a loss of half its staff, a reduction of recreation center hours and parks programs, reduced maintenance and increased fees.

The proposed levy and parks district would cost the owner of a $200,000 home $106 a year, and the council favored that over an option that would have asked for 35 cents per $1,000 of assessed value, or about $70 a year for an average homeowner. The lower 35-cent rate would preserve the current level of depleted services — an option most of the council said it couldn’t abide.

“When you go out to the voters, it’s important that everyone benefits,” said Councilor Larry Smith, who once was the city’s parks director. “It’s got to be broad enough so that you have an effect, and not just tread water.”

A 53 cent per $1,000 assessed value tax increase would raise about $7 million annually. Right now, Vancouver’s general fund contributes about $9 million to parks and recreation. If the levy were to pass, a large amount of that money would be freed up for other services, most likely public safety.

City Manager Eric Holmes said those changes would amount to at least

$1 million in additional money for parks.

The Vancouver City Council’s seven members would serve as the governing body of the parks district, although the district would be a separate government entity from the city council. It’s not clear what the creation of a metropolitan parks district would do to the existing intergovernmental agreement between the city and Clark County, which form the joint Vancouver-Clark Parks and Recreation District.

Department Director Pete Mayer outlined numerous projects a 53 cent per $1,000 of assessed value levy could achieve: Major repair and replacement of building systems, fitness and other equipment; development of an outdoor fitness circuit for older adults at the Luepke Senior Center; expansion of camps and services for citizens with disabilities; expansion of daily teen center operations to include evening and weekend hours at schools and/or recreation centers; restoring six out-of-school activity sites; expansion of a scholarship fund for more than 2,500 low-income youth, older adults and families; renovation of select park sites to meet user demands and disability access standards; repairs on major trails and greenways; and improving the maintenance level of service to park and trail properties.

The levy would make steps to restore the department to its service levels ­before cuts began, Mayer said.

“People expect that (a levy) is going to fix the system, rather than freeze it at a very low level,” Councilor Jack Burkman said in support of the higher levy rate.

A parks levy this Nov. 6 would be on a ballot with a presidential election, numerous local elections and possibly a C-Tran tax request for light rail.

The results of a scientific community survey released last week showed just 22 percent of the 403 respondents said that they would personally vote to pay more for parks and recreation services. And 72 percent of Vancouver residents also said they are satisfied with the current parks system.

Councilor Bart Hansen pointed out that the survey was taken in April, ahead of a summer season where people will notice drastically reduced parks maintenance and programs. A late-fall survey may paint a different picture, he said. If the city council clarifies that the extra money a metropolitan parks district would create in the general fund goes to public safety, Hansen said he would back the levy.

“Let’s do it right — $106 on my house that’s been devalued to $200,000 is well worth it in the amount of parks and recreation I use with my family,” Hansen said.

Councilors Jeanne Stewart and Bill Turlay said they were worried about the overall impact this tax increase would have when combined with other local and state increases. Stewart called for a bigger picture of plans for taxes over the next six years before she could support any levy. Stewart grilled staff for close to 10 minutes of the 60-minute workshop with questions on topics ranging from future levies to the ­potential impact a parks district could have on the collection of real estate excise taxes.

“I don’t want to wait for citizens to come and say ‘I can’t afford to live in Vancouver anymore,’ ” she said.

Mayor Tim Leavitt said there haven’t been detailed discussions about when or how much a future fire or police levy would ask for.

“The issue today isn’t what’s going to happen with police and fire; the matter at hand is a (metropolitan parks district) for parks and recreation, and what level do we want to ask people to take a vote on,” Leavitt said.

Leavitt said that he frequently travels the country, where he sees cities that have allowed services such as parks and infrastructure to degrade.

“I refuse to let this community go down that path — it’s time to ask our community if they’re willing to step up and pay a little bit more.”

The city council will hold a workshop on June 11 to go over a draft ballot resolution, with a public hearing and vote on the resolution set for June 18. The city must submit its levy ask to the Clark County Auditor by Aug. 7 for the November election.

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