Pierce County leaders have shelved plans to ask voters to create a metropolitan park district as a separate source of tax revenue for parks.
Assessed housing values have declined so much that a levy wouldn’t produce enough money, officials said.
County Council Chairwoman Joyce McDonald recently wrote the Park Leadership Task Force, saying it’s “imprudent” to forward a measure to voters “at this time.”
McDonald, R-Puyallup, cited the economy, “lack of predictability” for future assessed property values and limits on property tax levies.
A park district was considered a way to bolster funding for parks, which have declined and not kept pace with population growth. From 2008-10, the county’s Parks Department eliminated programs, reduced hours and slashed maintenance, although many of those cuts have been restored, said parks and recreation director Kathy Kravit-Smith.
In September 2011, the County Council created a 16-member task force to study creating a park district.
In her Jan. 29 letter to the task force, McDonald said the County Council determined planning for a park district “should be discontinued.”
Creating a district would require a public vote. Once established, the district’s commissioners would decide to enact a levy.
“It’s just the reality of the economic situation,” said County Council member Rick Talbert, D-Tacoma, who is chairman of the Park Leadership Task Force. “There isn’t enough taxing authority available to make it a worthwhile conversation right now.”
In 2011, the available capacity was 94 cents per $1,000 of assessed valuation, said County Council analyst Hugh Taylor. For this year, the capacity is 25 cents per $1,000.
A metropolitan park district is a junior taxing district under state law. When assessed values fall, the taxing authority available for junior districts declines as the state’s limit for local levies is approached or met.
Pierce County is at that limit of $5.90 per $1,000 of assessed valuation, said Billie O’Brien, of the county Assessor-Treasurer’s Office.
Higher priority taxing districts — such as counties, cities and road districts — are permitted to raise their budgets up to 1 percent a year to make up for the decline in assessed valuation.
The assessed value of the average home in Pierce County plunged nearly 12 percent in 2012, marking the fifth consecutive year that home assessments had dropped.
Kravit-Smith recommended to McDonald in December that exploration of a park district be discontinued, “based on the current economy and the uncertainty of property values going forward.”
Based on estimates last summer, a 25-cent levy would have generated about $6 million per year, Taylor said. That’s $55 annually for the owner of a $220,000 house.
Kravit-Smith said a levy of 25 cents per $1,000 was the bare minimum for her. She questioned whether a levy could have raised enough money and whether voters would have approved a district, knowing it would enact a new tax.
Kravit-Smith said the timing wasn’t right, with many other priorities such as a new county flood-control tax imposed this winter.
“People are struggling to make ends meet,” she said.
Pierce County has other park districts such as PenMet Parks and Metro Parks Tacoma.
The county’s parks department has a budget of $29.5 million for 2013. Of that, $6.3 million comes from the county general fund, competing against priorities such as law enforcement and jail funding. The County Council budgeted $300,000 each for 2012 and 2013 to chip into a backlog of deferred parks maintenance.
Unincorporated Pierce County has 49 county park sites covering about 5,000 acres. A 2008 county study reported it would cost $300 million to meet the public’s level of need for new and renovated parks.
“We certainly will not be able to make major progress on keeping pace with growth,” Kravit-Smith said.
With parks funding from the county’s general fund and tax revenue, “it will be mostly taking care of what we have.”
But on the bright side, she said: “We have lots of capability for providing recreation programs at the parks we have now.”Steve Maynard: 253-597-8647