University Place parks and recreation boosters pitch for park district

Children dance during a summer concert at the Curran Apple Orchard Park in University Place in 2005. The city’s parks and recreation programs are facing cuts in the next few years.
Children dance during a summer concert at the Curran Apple Orchard Park in University Place in 2005. The city’s parks and recreation programs are facing cuts in the next few years. Janet Jensen

Looking for a way to avoid having their parks and recreation services gutted, boosters in University Place are trying to establish a metropolitan park district.

Volunteers in the city are circulating petitions and need 3,000 signatures, or 15 percent of registered voters, to get a measure on the ballot.

Voters could be asked to decide as early as February 2016.

Proponents contend that establishing a junior taxing district separate from the city general fund is the best way to maintain the parks and recreation program.

“The city says it can’t maintain parks starting in 2017,” said Jim Baldes, chairman of the parks and recreation commission. “The council said there is no money, period. They just cannot fund it.”

The city’s park commission recommended the metro park district in March 2014.

Such a district can be formed only if voters approve it by a simple majority.

The new district would follow the city’s boundaries and could collect a maximum tax of 75 cents per $1,000 of assessed property value.

If the issue makes the ballot, voters would simultaneously vote for park district commissioners.

The proposed park district would operate similar to a school district, said Rebecca Vader, UP park commission vice chairwoman. Elected commissioners would determine the tax rate and ask voters to approve it, she said.

Proponents say a park district is the best way to maintain the city’s current recreation programs, from senior activities to youth sports.

“Since 2010, this has been a well-managed, but ongoing fiscal balancing act,” Vader said. “A balancing act makes it sound too stable. It’s been a financial scramble.”

Budget shortfalls in 2000, 2004 and 2010 forced deep reductions to staff and popular parks and recreation programs such as youth sports leagues.

“The metropolitan park district is the best chance for a stable, viable, manageable and governable parks and recreation program,” Vader said.

Its unknown whether ownership of the city’s 17 parks, totaling 121 acres, would transfer to the district. The City Council would have to approve the transfer.

Meanwhile, the UP City Council will discuss its recreation programs at a Sept. 14 finance committee meeting. The council will discuss increasing user fees and eliminating programs.

UP Mayor Denise McCluskey said the council hasn’t officially considered fees and cuts, but is “leaning in the direction” of eliminating programs that don’t pay for themselves.

More than half of the parks and recreation budget is subsidized by the city’s general fund. That amounted to roughly $400,000 in 2015, according to Eric Faison, UP assistant city manager and executive director of finance and administration.

“We won’t be able to continue the general fund subsidy of the program going forward,” Faison said.

The city’s property taxes are earmarked for public safety. UP voters rejected a utility tax increase last year that would have paid for police and freed up money for parks and recreation.

More about University Place Metro Parks

To learn more about the proposed metropolitan park district, go online to upmetroparks.org. The committee that’s studying a park district will have its next meeting at 7 p.m. Wednesday at Curtis High School. The public is welcome.