Opponents: University Place park district ‘costly answer’ to budget gap

A small group of University Place residents has formed to oppose the creation of a taxing district to pay for the city’s recreation programs.

Ballots will go out April 8 to UP voters, who will decide in the April 26 special election whether to form a metropolitan park district to maintain the city’s recreation programs.

If voters reject the measure, popular programs such as youth sports, music and art classes, and the city’s senior center and its various offerings will cease in 2017.

The formalized group of roughly eight park district opponents aren’t against recreational programming in the city. They say the programs are “essential” to the community. But they don’t like creating a tax to pay for them.

“I’d like to see them keep recreation and make cuts elsewhere in their budget,” opponent Scott McGill said.

The median home value in University Place is $297,852, according to Pierce County Assessor-Treasurer Mike Lonergan.

Taxed at the maximum allowable rate of 75 cents per $1,000 of assessed value, the owner of a median value home would pay $223 a year for the park district, if it’s approved.

The City Council agreed at the end of last year to discontinue recreation programs as a way to fill a projected $1 million budget deficit in the city’s 2017-18 budget.

City finance officials estimate the general fund subsidizes recreation by about $390,000 a year. Revenue generated by recreation user fees was close to $370,000 in 2015.

Creating a park district for recreation duplicates services and is a costly answer to finding $390,000 in savings, opponent Jim Clark said.

With an estimated $25 million operating budget, “it seems they ought to be able to pay for parks and recreation services,” he said.

“We’re just trying to say, ‘Wait a minute, there’s a better way here,’ ” Clark said.

The group proposes the city cut from other departments, including city staff, to make up the difference.

“My take is they need to lay some people off,” Clark said. “I don’t have anything personally against the staff here, but we have to do some cuts.”

The city cut staffing levels by one-third in the 2007 recession and hasn’t refilled the positions.

The Parks and Recreation Department laid off three of its nine full-time staff members. It has six full-time employees and one part-time employee, split between park maintenance and recreation.

Opponents believe mismanagement and overspending of city funds since incorporation resulted in the current scenario. They cite the city’s $43 million debt — some of it tied to plans to develop its commercial town center on Bridgeport Way — as an example.

The city pays about $3.5 million a year toward its debt and will need to continue that annual payment until 2036.

If a park district is formed, it too could amass significant debt that city taxpayers would pay, opponents say.

The group made that assumption after looking at the three established park districts in the area — Key Pen Parks and PenMet Parks in unincorporated Pierce County and Metro Parks Tacoma.

They also questioned what it would cost to buy the city’s park properties.

University Park officials say there is no immediate plan to turn over the city’s 17 parks to the district if it is formed. Future property acquisition, including potential costs, would be negotiated by the city and elected park district commissioners.

State law requires the commissioners be elected to staggered terms at the time the park district is formed.

State law also limits park district collections to a maximum of 75 cents per $1,000 of assessed value. Park district commissioners could set a lower rate and increase it without a public vote as long as the rate stays at or below the maximum.

The district also would be restricted by a state cap, which means the total amount of money collected among junior taxing districts within the taxed area cannot exceed $5.90 per $1,000 of assessed value.

Opponents say they don’t want to see recreation programs cut in the city, but, with one of the highest property tax rates in the county, adding taxes is more than they can handle.

“Do I want to be able to live in UP and be able to afford my home?” opponent Dennis Flann said. “Or do I want to pay for somebody to play football and have high taxes?”

Brynn Grimley: 253-597-8467, @bgrimley

Informational forum

What: The League of Women Voters of Tacoma Pierce County will host a forum on the proposed University Place metropolitan park district. Each side will have five minutes to speak, and park district commissioner candidates have been invited to participate. The public will be allowed to submit written questions.

When: 6:30 to about 8:15 p.m. April 11.

Where: University Place Council Chambers, 3715 Bridgeport Way W., University Place