More Washington communities are turning to metropolitan park districts such as PenMet Parks to serve as caretakers of public lands as city, county and state budgets have tightened in the weak economy.
Burdened by big-ticket costs such as Sprinker Recreation Center in Spanaway, Pierce County is even mulling a metro park district for most of its unincorporated area. It would augment the county parks department, which now must compete for funds against priorities such as roads and sheriff’s deputies.
Voters around Washington formed seven metro park districts from 2002 to 2005, after state legislation allowed them to do so. Six more have been formed since 2009 for a total of 14.
Jessi Richardson, parks director for the City of Sammamish and former director of the Si View Metropolitan Park District, said she expects “to see more and more metropolitan park districts popping up as the economy continues to struggle and more facilities are closed.”
In November, the Pierce County Parks and Recreation Citizens Advisory Board recommended a district that would encompass unincorporated Pierce County outside of cities and existing parks districts.
The board said a park district “could ensure the survival of a county parks system, as general fund support continues to dwindle.”
It recommended a levy of 23 cents per $1,000 of assessed value – about $50 a year for the average homeowner.
The county parks department has eliminated programs, reduced hours and slashed maintenance due to a 11.3 percent drop in its operating budgets since 2008, budget figures show.
It has eliminated or reduced youth basketball programs, summer camps and senior trips; cut maintenance at 16 county park sites; and initiated some summer closures at Lake Tapps and Spanaway Lake parks. It also has raised the possibility of transferring its lease interest in Fort Steilacoom Park to the City of Lakewood.
County Council Chairman Roger Bush said the council has not had a chance to review the advisory report but anticipated discussing the findings in the spring.
Bush said public outreach will be critical. “We’re not in any rush on this.”
PenMet Parks has raised concerns about the proposed countywide district. PenMet commissioners prefer smaller districts like theirs to ensure local control.
“I think that metro districts that get too big become ineffective,” said Terry Lee, PenMet Parks’ executive director and a former county councilman, in a recent interview.
Pierce County isn’t alone in considering a metro park district.
The City of University Place considered asking voters to form one heading into 2010 due to big cuts to recreation programs, but the idea never gained traction, said Gary Cooper, director of public works and parks.
The city slashed funding for those programs from $321,000 in 2009 to $120,000 annually in 2010 and 2011. To keep recreation programs afloat, a community group raised $74,000 last year and has a goal of $80,000 this year, he said.
“It’s going to have to come back,” Cooper said of the park district discussion. “We can’t run a long-term program based on donations.”
Officials in existing metro park districts say theirs is a popular model after years of tax-cutting voter intiatives, the collapse of the housing market and lingering effects of the Great Recession.
“When parks is in the same bucket of money as law enforcement and streets, parks always drop to the bottom,” said Curtis Hancock, a PenMet Parks commissioner. He also is a project manager for Metro Parks Tacoma, the state’s first metropolitan park district that voters formed in 1907.
Metro park districts offer advantages over standard park and recreation districts because the levy is permanent and they can assess a higher rate.
PenMet succeeded the Peninsula Park and Recreation District, which struggled financially after its formation in 1984. Over the next two decades, it asked voters 16 times to approve bonds and levies and was successful securing the 60 percent approval threshold just once.
Voters approved a bond in 2003 to develop Sehmel Homestead Park but rejected a companion levy to pay for its maintenance, so the bonds were never sold.
PenMet took over the project and opened the showcase park in May 2010.
William Sehmel, a former Peninsula commissioner who now serves in the same capacity on the PenMet board, said the old parks district “was a place to hear a lot of good ideas and stuff, but you couldn’t get much done with no money.”
“We had difficulty some years just getting insurance,” he said.
“I think the stable revenue source is critical for everyone,” said Scott Gallacher, executive director of the Key Peninsula Metropolitan Park District. It formed at the same time as PenMet, on the west side of the Purdy bridge, but didn’t begin levying taxes until 2008.
The tax revenue is essential in ways big and small.
“You can have the nice, pretty projects,” Gallacher said. “In five years, you still have to pick up the garbage and clean the bathrooms.”
Christian Hill: 253-274-7390