Politics & Government

University Place eyes taxing district to help fend off parks and recreation cuts

University Place leaders have known all year they need to find a way to pay for parks and recreation costs by 2017, but that conversation was postponed while they waited to see if voters would raise their taxes to help pay for police.

Had UP voters approved the utility tax increase on the November ballot, current police money would have been available to shift to parks.

But they didn’t, which means cuts are likely for the city’s police force.

Now the City Council must decide whether the same will happen to its parks department.

“We want to find a solution that balances expectations with (taxpayers’) willingness to pay,” said UP Mayor Denise McCluskey.

That discussion will begin in earnest next month with an all-day meeting at City Hall. The public is invited.

This isn’t the first time the city has faced cuts to its parks and recreation department. Budget shortfalls in 2000, 2004 and 2010 forced deep reductions to staff and popular programs such as youth sports recreation leagues.

One suggestion this time is to ask voters to approve a junior taxing district known as a metropolitan parks district. In March, the city’s parks and recreation commission recommended forming one.

The City Council then asked for additional information, including what a metropolitan parks district would look like in UP.

The commission’s report presented Monday during a study session included information gleaned from meetings with 11 metropolitan parks districts spanning from Bellingham to Pullman.

Those meetings confirmed that a metropolitan parks district is the city’s best chance at maintaining UP’s programs, said commission chairman Jim Baldes.

Voters would have to approve a parks district. The City Council could put a measure on the ballot, or it could be done by petition where 15 percent of registered voters request it be placed on the ballot.

The commission recommended using the petition method because it would generate more public awareness, Baldes said.

The commission also noted the more time there is to campaign for a parks district, the more likely voters will approve its formation.

The city’s 2015-16 biennium budget has enough money to cover parks and recreation expenses through 2016. The city allocated $1.27 million in 2015 and $1.22 million in 2016 for the department.

If the council chooses to move forward with a parks district, it has the time to do a thorough awareness campaign, Councilman Javier Figueroa said.

“I really believe that it is an 18-month process,” he said. “We have the budget to give us that 18 months, but that means we have to start early next year.”