Vancouver parks levy plan explained

City voters asked to OK tax to create dedicated funding stream

By Stephanie Rice, Columbian Vancouver city government reporter

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Residents within Vancouver city limits will decide whether to approve a property tax levy that would create a dedicated funding stream for parks and recreation, which has been hit hard by budget cuts.

The levy would be 35 cents per $1,000 of assessed value -- $70 a year on a $200,000 home -- and would create a metropolitan parks district.

The Vancouver City Council decided in June to send the idea to voters, after discussing it at 13 public meetings since early 2010.

Ballots for the Nov. 6 general election will be mailed Monday.

Vancouver resident Lynda Wilson, who wrote a statement against the proposal for the voters' guide, said the proposed rate of 35 cents per $1,000 could be raised to 75 cents per $1,000, the statutory limit, without further voter approval by the current council or future council. She suggests that neighborhoods instead can "adopt a park" to help with maintenance.

City Manager Eric Holmes, in response to questions raised by Wilson's statement, said it's unlikely the amount would be able to be increased, because the aggregate limit of junior and senior taxing districts is $5.90. The city council didn't discuss raising the tax rate higher than 35 cents per $1,000, but the council, by law, can't bind future councils.

The metropolitan parks district would be a junior taxing district, and the city council would serve as the district's board of commissioners.

Roy Heikkala, chairman of the Committee to Save Vancouver Parks, said the $5.4 million raised by the levy would "stop the bleeding."

Since 2008, the number of full-time employees at the Vancouver-Clark Parks and Recreation Department has been cut in half. Parks funding accounts for approximately 6 percent of the city's general fund, down from 10 to 11 percent.

"What I'm looking for here is to hold the line," he said. The city can't even apply for parks and recreation grants, he said, because it doesn't have matching funds.

The money would improve and maintain city recreation facilities, parks and trails. Needs include repairing community center floors, locker rooms and HVAC systems, replacing worn fitness equipment and improving customer lobby areas, playgrounds and sports courts.

The money wouldn't pay for new parks. Revenues from real estate excise taxes and park impact fees, which have been down along with construction and home prices, pay for new parks, Heikkala said. Once the economy picks up and new parks are built, he said, the money used from the levy could be used for their maintenance.

More than 1 million visits are made to city recreation facilities every year.

Heikkala said youth and senior programs that have been cut could be restored.

The city council currently budgets $8.7 million for parks and recreation but doesn't have all of it funded, he said. If the levy passes, the city council could cut some funding to parks from the general fund and instead use that money for other public services, such as police and fire. Public safety currently accounts for 58 percent of the city's budget.

The city raises about $4.4 million from parks and recreation fees and charges, and the city council has opted not to increase those prices.

By law, the money raised through the parks district would have to go for parks and recreation, Heikkala said.

Stephanie Rice: 360-735-4508 or stephanie.rice@columbian.com.