Politics & Government

Metro Parks board will decide whether to ask voters for $198 million

A $198 million bond issue was touted Monday night as a way to preserve an outdoors legacy for future generations of Tacoma area residents, including significant upgrades at Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium and a wide range of work at regional and neighborhood parks.

About a dozen people spoke in favor of the Metro Parks Tacoma bond issue proposal — the first in nearly a decade — at Monday’s parks board meeting. The board will decide at its next meeting Feb. 24 whether to place the bond on the April 22 ballot.

Metro Parks Deputy Executive Director Steve Knauer said the agency had done extensive outreach and research into what Tacomans want in their parks.

“They like what they see. They like what they touch. They want more and want to preserve what we have,” he said.

When taxpayers approved a $84.3 million bond issue in 2005 by nearly a two-to-one margin, it was presented as the first request of more to come. At the time, Metro Parks officials said it would pay for roughly a third of the long-term parks needs they had identified — and now they’ve identified even more.

So it should come as no surprise that voters are being approached again, this time to approve a nearly $200 million bond issue. Projects include replacement of the Zoo & Aquarium’s 51-year-old North Pacific Aquarium and updates to the Polar Bear and Rocky Shores exhibits, adding artificial turf for athletic fields, continuing preservation efforts for the WW Seymour Botanical Conservatory in Wright Park, and improvements at dozens of neighborhood parks throughout the city.

The proposal also includes a community center for Tacoma’s East Side, a facility that Shalisa Hayes said her son, Billy Ray Shirley III, asked for before he was killed by gang violence two years ago.

It’s likely the center wouldn’t be built in time for current teens to enjoy, Hayes said Monday. “(The teens) started talking about how this would help their younger children and possibly their siblings.”

When the smaller bond measure was approved nearly a decade ago, part of the funds paid for the creation of master plans, which help the agency decide how to maintain and improve facilities over the next 20 years. Such long-range planning takes population growth into consideration, as well as changing standards for the zoo and aquarium.

“Our capital needs now, as we have done our work, is closer to $500 million,” Knauer said in an interview last week.

Property owners in the park district are currently paying about $40 per year for every $100,000 in property value. Chief Financial Officer Brett Freshwaters said that debt will be retired in 2030.

If the proposed bond issue passes, owners would pay an additional $58 per year for each $100,000 in property value. Freshwaters said this series of bonds would be paid off in 2042.

It could take 10 or 12 years to complete all the projects covered by the proposed bond issue, Knauer said.

Curt Mehlhoff of Tacoma, the sole critic at Monday’s meeting, said he did not believe the bond issue was a wise use of taxpayer dollars. He said the plan was not specific enough for the amount of money that would be spent.

“There is no obligation for the Parks Department to complete anything (it says it is) going to do,” he said. “People are wanting and wishing that it’s so. We are back to Walt Disney and wishing for things to come true.”

Parks officials say the last projects from the 2005 bond issue will be completed this year; among them are a spray park at the South End Recreation and Adventure Campus and mountain bike trails in Swan Creek Park.

Kate Martin: 253-597-8542