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University Place residents mixed about saving recreation with new taxes

Marvin Dahl, right, laughs while  playing bridge with, from left, Paul Cutler, 80; B.J. Ogden, 69, and Don Wilbur, 85, at University Place Senior Center in University Place on Tuesday. In 2017, the city will no longer pay for  recreation programs like its many senior activities.
Marvin Dahl, right, laughs while playing bridge with, from left, Paul Cutler, 80; B.J. Ogden, 69, and Don Wilbur, 85, at University Place Senior Center in University Place on Tuesday. In 2017, the city will no longer pay for recreation programs like its many senior activities. Staff photographer

Norma and Don Wilbur met while playing cards at the University Place Senior Center eight years ago. Both were widowed, and after two years of playing bridge together, they got married.

The Wilburs appreciate the senior center on Grandview Drive West, which offers everything from arts and crafts to driver safety programs and bingo.

“It’s a gathering place where people who are alone can come together,” said Norma Wilbur, 75.

But they differ on a plan to create a taxing district to save the senior center and other recreation programs in UP. While Norma supports it, her husband doesn’t.

“People are just tired of taxes,” said Don Wilbur, 85. “They keep raising taxes.”

There may not be another solution.

University Place officials say they can no longer afford to operate recreation programs and will stop offering them at the end of next year.

That means popular youth programs such as sports, music and arts would not continue into 2017. The senior center would also close, and senior programs would be halted.

“We have revenue troubles, and we’ve done everything we can to trim and cut and reduce,” said Gary Cooper, UP’s director of Public Works and Parks and Recreation.

Maintenance and upkeep at the city’s 17 parks would continue at normal spending levels, officials say.

But the City Council is firm that it will not bail out recreation programs as it has done previously.

The council’s position helps a group of volunteers looking to form a metropolitan parks district in UP.

“I’m pleased that they’re willing to just be really clear about this,” park district proponent Rebecca Vader said.

Volunteers hope the fear of losing recreation in UP will be enough to convince voters to approve the taxing district in the city of 32,000 people so that recreation programs can continue.

Property tax revenue collected from the district could not exceed 75 cents per $1,000 of assessed value, and it would only be used for recreation.

If proponents gather 3,000 valid signatures from University Place residents, the measure would appear on the April 2016 ballot.

So far volunteers have gathered just under 1,000 signatures.

Their biggest hurdle: lack of information.

“Some people just think, ‘Oh there’s always this problem and the city always takes care of it’ and it’s no big deal,” Vader said.

The UP council is expected to pass a resolution this month making clear that it will not do another bailout before cuts in 2017.

“They are basically categorically saying they cannot fund it,” park district proponent Jim Baldes said.

Armed with this information, signature gatherers are trying to educate the public.

“I can’t tell you how many people have no clue,” UP resident Mike Gallagher said.

A longtime volunteer coach in the community, Gallagher is reaching out to parents on the sidelines. Losing recreational sports “takes away part of our identity,” he said.

It also eliminates the opportunity to play organized sports for children who might otherwise not be good enough or have the financial means to play for private clubs or for competive schools teams, he said.

Parents at Cirque Park last week watching their kids play soccer were unaware of the city’s plans to cut programs.

“That’s horrible,” said UP resident Jen Mcleod, whose sons Jarett, 4, and Jay, 6, play soccer through the city. She chose the city’s recreation program because of convenience.

Jacci Roscoe, whose daughters Maya, 4, and Kaile, 6, also play soccer, said her family moved back to UP after being away for two years. They returned in part because of amenities like recreation.

“I’d hate to see it go away,” Roscoe said.

Both women said they would support a park district to keep the programs.

Meanwhile, opinions were mixed last week at the UP Senior Center where 16 people were playing bridge.

“If it closes, we would have to find another place to gather,” said Craig Shaw, 78, who has played cards at the center for more than a decade. “Seniors need to have a place to come.”

Shaw supports a metropolitan park district. He wants to keep the center open and its many activities available, he said.

The last time recreation programs were on the chopping block was 2009. A combination of staff layoffs and program cuts saved it.

“Right now we’re hemorrhaging $900,000 a year, and we need to fix it,” Mayor Denise McCluskey said at a council meeting last month.

It costs roughly $700,000 to operate the city’s recreation programs. User fees generate just over $300,000, leaving the city on the hook to subsidize the remaining $400,000 from its general fund.

Budget projections show that subsidy would have to keep growing if programs continue, according to UP finance director Eric Faison.

By 2020, the city will face a $1.2 million deficit if changes aren’t made, Faison said.

“Unfortunately in our gut I think we know what we need to do,” parks director Cooper said.

Brynn Grimley: 253-597-8467

brynn.grimley@thenewstribune.com

@bgrimley

University Place recreation by the numbers

Youth sports

Total program expense: $202,465.

Participants: 1,882.

Youth programs

Total program expense: $145,504.

Participants: 1,685.

Trips and tours

Total program expense: $48,363.

Participants: 345.

Cultural arts

Total program expense: $9,968.

Participants: 231.

Fitness

Total program expense: $26,041.

Participants: 245.

Senior center/senior services

Total program expense: $129,074.

Participants: 6,035.

University Place 2014 data

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