Park levy faces long odds, if it even makes the ballot


by Dean A. Radford
King County Journal Reporter

King County, WA - A 5-cent levy that would save the county's regional parks system from closing may not make it on the May ballot, if County Council Republicans and Democrats stick to their guns.

If it does, members of both parties say it faces a tough go with voters.

The idea is to increase property taxes by 5 cents per $1,000 of assessed valuation each year for the next six years. That's $12.50 on a $250,000 home.

The levy would pump nearly $76 million into the county's budget to go toward maintaining and operating the county's regional parks system. It comes as the county expects to cut at least $55 million from its budget in the next three years.

Some question whether the county's threat to close parks if the levy fails is just a ploy to get out the ``yes'' vote. Larry Phillips, the council's budget chairman, says the situation is real.

``Just do the math. It's not a scare tactic,'' he said.

Still, some suburban Republicans are turning their backs on the property tax increase because their constituents are simply tired of paying more taxes and because many cities have done their part to keep parks and pools open.

The Republicans want to cut two or three years off the levy's six-year life. To them, six years seems like a long time to solve a temporary budget problem.

They're expected to introduce an amendment at Monday's council meeting calling for a shorter time frame.

Levy supporters say three years isn't enough time to find permanent solutions to the county's budget crisis, some of which may require approval of the state Legislature and voters.

The county could save some election costs by delaying the vote until fall, but then the parks department wouldn't know if it would have the $11.6 million in levy revenue in time to prepare its 2004 budget.

Without Republican support, the levy won't go on the May 20 ballot, the council's seven Democrats have vowed. They hold the majority on the council and could, if they wanted, put the levy on the ballot without the Republicans' help.

But they won't. They want the six suburban Republicans to step up to the plate and tell their constituents to raise their taxes to pay for parks, pools and trails that are mostly in their areas.

Then, they'll be happy to ask their own people, who mostly live in Seattle, to dig deeper into their pockets.

The Democrats are hoping to get at least three Republicans on the ``yes'' side. That will depend on how much compromising both sides are willing to do.

Carolyn Edmonds of Shoreline, who chairs the council's Natural Resources, Parks and Open Space Committee, said the levy needs bipartisan support.

``If we aren't going to work together to get the issue on the ballot, then how can we expect the community to work together to solve the problem?'' she said.

Edmonds says healthy debate is part of the legislative process. She supports the six-year levy, but is willing to consider changes to the plan.

``The goal is to keep the parks system open,'' she said.

Bellevue Republican Rob McKenna says he can't support the levy as proposed, but he's still waiting for answers to questions he posed to council staff last week.

Kathy Lambert of Woodinville was leaning toward a three-year levy until she got some bad news last week. The state is now estimating that the economy won't recover as quickly as once expected, she said. She would go along with a four-year levy.

So, what happens if voters get their chance to raise taxes to pay for parks?

Will the thousands of people who crowded into meetings last summer and overwhelmed council members with e-mails back up their support for parks with money?

Working against the levy is an anti-tax sentiment that won't go away. Some mistrust government and wonder whether their leaders have done enough to cut waste and unnecessary overhead from the county's budget.

Julia Patterson of SeaTac, a council Democrat, is concerned.

``I don't think people are in the mood for any tax increase,'' Patterson said. ``I might be wrong. But that is my intuitive sense.''

McKenna doesn't see widespread public support for a six-year levy in his Eastside district, either.

``Generally speaking, for a tax increase, you are looking for a groundswell of support. It isn't there at this point,'' he said.

Levy supporters also have to convince voters to throw off their parochial garb and pay for regional parks they may not use regularly. That already is proving to be a tough sell in Seattle.

But even some Seattle residents see the value in saving the regional system. Renee Duprel of Seattle, a member of the U.S. national cycling team and one-time Olympics alternate, trained at the velodrome at Marymoor Park in Redmond.

``King County parks have played no small part in my success,'' she told the King County Council last Monday.

Council members posed several questions to their staff last Monday. The answers may ease their concerns. A general assumption is that suburban cities are opposed to the levy, but officially, at least, that's not the case for most.

On Mercer Island, City Manager Rich Conrad hasn't ``heard a lot of enthusiasm'' for the levy on the City Council. He points out that his city now owns and operates Luther Burbank Park and is contributing $100,000 to operate Mary Wayte Pool, both former county facilities.


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