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Parks fade as funds dry up

Amid drought, Vancouver residents lament impact of Great Recession budget cuts upon local landscape

By , Columbian City Government Reporter
Published:
2 Photos
The green grass in the roundabout near Summer's Walk park, top, which is maintained by the homeowners, provides a contrast to the dried grass of the park, bottom, which is maintained by the city, Friday morning, August 28, 2015.
The green grass in the roundabout near Summer's Walk park, top, which is maintained by the homeowners, provides a contrast to the dried grass of the park, bottom, which is maintained by the city, Friday morning, August 28, 2015. (Amanda Cowan/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

When Sherrie and Lenny Hendricks were considering buying a home in the Fisher’s Landing East neighborhood in the late 1990s, it was the lushly landscaped Summer’s Walk Park across the street that sealed the deal.

The 4-acre park at Southeast 180th Avenue and Southeast 17th Street was lined with showy rhododendron and azalea bushes, fragrant witch hazel and lavender shrubs, graceful aspens and Japanese maples. Springtime brought cheery crocuses, daffodils and narcissus.

“I walked around here and thought, ‘They spared no expense on the shrubbery and trees,’ ” said Sherrie Hendricks, 69.

Today, she looks out her kitchen window and sees a brown, scrubby wasteland. The grass is dead, the bushes are overgrown and the flowers are a distant memory.

“It just makes me want to bawl,” she said Wednesday.

Vancouver resident Linda Angelo recounted showing friends around town who were thinking of relocating. With their rotting picnic tables, locked bathrooms and walkways choked with blackberry brambles, the parks didn’t make a good first impression, she said.

“Parks are important to people. For (my friends) to see them in shambles, they felt, ‘Is this the way Vancouver takes care of things?’ ” asked Angelo, whose late father-in-law was Al Angelo Sr., a longtime Vancouver mayor and founder of a large property management company. “I look at our parks, and I’m sad. It just makes me very sad.”

It’s been five years since the city slashed its maintenance staff in half as part of Great Recession budget cuts to preserve police and fire services. With just 15 workers left to care for the city’s 83 parks — not to mention hundreds of acres of other city property that includes cemeteries, trails and medians — irrigation systems were shut down. Plants and trees died off. Shrubs withered and weeds grew.

Exacerbated by this year’s prolonged drought, the decline of Vancouver’s parks has prompted complaints and calls for action. The economy has recovered, and citizens want to know when the money for parks is coming back. In a survey the city commissioned this summer, respondents ranked parks as their second-highest priority, just below that of transportation needs.

City officials say they’re aware of the situation and are hunting for solutions.

“I recognize that the community and the city council would like our parks to look better. We all would,” City Manager Eric Holmes said Tuesday. “It’s a tough issue. … It’s a matter of how do we get there, and we’re working on that.”

Yes, city tax revenues are on the upswing due to a construction boom, but they’ve taken a while to catch up to the private sector recovery, he said. Also, the city made service cuts in every department during the recession. The city can’t just throw money at parks without considering all other needs across the board first, a process that’s happening now.

“One of my responsibilities is to make sure we take into account the entire picture, and not just one slice at a time,” Holmes said.

Parks funding hasn’t been reliable since the late 1990s, when voters approved statewide initiatives that gutted government budgets by capping annual property tax increases and repealing motor vehicle excise taxes, Mayor Tim Leavitt said. Now, city revenues climb incrementally, but they’re nowhere near where they were in the late 1990s, he said.

Even though revenues are climbing, the city is behind in funding many services. For instance, the city’s transportation improvement plan contains $250 million in unfunded needs, Holmes said.

Holmes hopes to have answers by fall 2016, when it’s time to develop the 2017-2018 budget, he said.

Vancouver City Councilor Alishia Topper, who cited parks as one of her top three priorities when she ran for office, said it’s “devastating” to see formerly lush parks turn into a community blight.

“It’s not fair to the neighborhoods,” she said Thursday.

However, it all comes down to money, and there are competing priorities, she said.

“We can’t cut any more police officers or firefighters. We have a limited way to rearrange where the money’s going. We just need to be able to find a way to get it done,” Topper said.

Last fall, the city council boosted parks spending, budgeting money to hire jail work crews to perform maintenance. The council also allocated $300,000 both for this year and next year for parks capital improvement projects, of which there is a $9.2 million backlog.

That $300,000 per year will go toward things such as redesigned pathways, new tables and a new playground at Cascade Park and tennis court upgrades at Vancouver Tennis Center — but not watering or maintenance, Parks Director Julie Hannon said.

“We’re trying to concentrate on access and health and safety issues first … and then leverage funds if we have the opportunity,” she said Wednesday. “We’re trying to come up with some solutions and ideas to address it. But it probably won’t be, tomorrow everything’s green. … I think there’s going to be some slow improvements that will happen over several years that could help with the system.”

Vancouver resident Jim Luce, 71, has been urging the city council to give parks a “fair share” of increased sales tax revenues in the short term, and to proportionally increase parks maintenance funding in the 2017-2018 budget cycle. For the long term, a parks levy is needed, he said.

Luce isn’t alone. Many others agree it’s time for another property tax levy ballot measure to create a dedicated funding stream for parks and recreation, the likes of which failed dismally three years ago during the grips of the recession. The 2012 measure would have taxed property owners 35 cents per $1,000 of assessed value, or $70 a year on a $200,000 home. Inserted onto the ballot by the City Council, 66 percent of voters rejected it.

But the economic climate has improved since then, and parks look visibly worse, say those in support of a fresh ballot measure. If an education outreach campaign were launched 18 months to two years in advance, a parks ballot measure could have a chance of passing, they say. It would just be a matter of crafting the measure carefully and selling it to voters properly, which didn’t happen in 2012.

“I bet people would vote for it this time,” said Les Heffler, 73, who lives beside Clearmeadows park, where the dry, crispy vegetation has him concerned about fires. “I think anyone who would vote against it would be very foolish, unless they just don’t care.”

The bottom line, Leavitt said, is that restoring parks to their former glory will require more investment from the community.

“My hope is that folks would be willing to do that,” Leavitt said.

Angelo and her husband, Al “Corky” Angelo Jr., believe that many longtime residents with deep roots take great pride in Vancouver and would step up to help. A tax measure could pass if people were to get organized, they said.

“We don’t have to give up,” Linda Angelo said. “We can do it if we just get the community together. The timing is right, so let’s go forward.”

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Columbian City Government Reporter