What's Up With That? Dry parks lingering sign of city budget woes

By Stephanie Rice, Columbian Vancouver city government reporter

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For more than three years the city park across the street (Summer's Walk) has not been watered. The developer spent lots of dollars laying out a plan and planting beautiful plants and trees. In the last three years we have lost more than 50 percent of those plants and trees. It's been heartbreaking to watch the downgrade. I thought that a part of our taxes were to pay for upkeep of our parks. What's going on?

— Sherrie Hendricks, Fisher’s Landing East

The short answer, Sherrie, is the city has pared spending down to "essential services," and watering neighborhood parks such as Summer's Walk — a 4.1-acre park deeded to the city by the developer in 1998 — isn't considered essential.

Yes, you pay property taxes for city services. But 2001's Initiative 747 capped annual property tax increases at 1 percent or the rate of inflation, whichever is less, and now property taxes don't support as many services as they used to. Parks are ranked behind fire, police and public works in terms of important city services. The fire department gets 25 cents of every $1 of city property tax revenue, the police department gets 24 cents and public works gets 15 cents. Those are the big three, and every other department fights for the leftovers.

Of every $1 dollar in property taxes the city takes in, 6 cents goes to parks and recreation. When the Vancouver City Council sought public input prior to the 2009-10 budget, which included citywide cuts, the residents who responded didn't rate "watering neighborhood parks" a priority.

Loretta Callahan, Vancouver Public Works spokeswoman, said the city's 14-member grounds maintenance staff is responsible for 83 parks totaling 517 acres, plus 50 acres in 11 open-space properties. Also on their to-do list: 58 properties such as city facilities, water stations, fire stations and an airpark totaling 271 acres; three cemeteries totaling 70 acres; more than 70 miles of trails and walks and many miles of street medians and rights of way.

When it comes to park upkeep, Callahan said, safety and sight-distance issues, such as overgrown vegetation that obscures drivers' views, take top priority. To report potential park safety issues, submit the online request form at www.cityofvancouver.us/servicerequest or call 360-487-8177, 7:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Monday through Friday.

Prior to the citywide budget reductions, the grounds maintenance staff was twice as large, Callahan said. Now, corrections department crews assist the staff, along with volunteers.

"The volunteer spirit is strong in Vancouver," Callahan said. "We appreciate the help."

If you're interested in helping with all that, visit www.cityofvancouver.us/parksrec/page/adopt-park.