More Shades of Green for Seattle Parks – An Approach for Sustainable Funding

I was recently able to meet with the office of Seattle Councilmember Sally Bagshaw to discuss SLI 83-1-A-1, which is a Statement of Legislative Intent (SLI) that requests the Parks Department work with other City Departments and groups to explore potential new sources of ongoing revenue for parks operations. Councilmember Bagshaw is the Chair of the Parks and Neighborhoods Committee.

By way of background, according the SLI, “Seattle voters last approved parks levies in 1998 and 2008. Under both levies, most of the revenues raised were allocated for capital expenses, including land acquisitions and the development or renovation of parks facilities and open spaces. These new investments have increased the Department of Parks and Recreation’s (DPR) operational responsibilities; however, [budgeted] funding for parks operations has not kept pace. Additionally, DPR’s largest source of revenue, the City’s General Subfund (GSF), is subject to fluctuations related to changing economic conditions and [political] budgetary pressures. GSF support currently accounts for about two thirds of DPR’s total annual revenues. Consequently, the Council is interested in identifying new, stable, ongoing revenue sources to support parks operations.”

Basically, as constituents we’ve voted for new parks (twice), they have been purchased and built out and, now, with the housing market in the tank and the majority of DPR revenue tied to housing, the City is unable to adequately fund routine maintenance. This is not a problem exclusive to DPR, as all departments whose budgets are primarily supported by GSF experience similar strains when the real estate market struggles.

My recommendation to Councilmember Bagshaw was to support a long-term park levy.

Without a levy the cumulative effect of budget cuts could mean closing parks, reduction in programs and, perhaps, even selling back recently acquired land. Seattle is also a City that has such beautiful parks, parks that people flock to, restored funding through a levy will allow citizens to continue to enjoy what they’ve asked to be provided as a public service.

Two key points that I stressed to Councilmember Bagshaw was the importance of the levy being a long-term levy and also the approach to the levy, whereby using the levy as a mechanism to diversify DPR’s revenue streams for essential services rather than as simply a tool to fund capital improvements.

On the long-term levy suggestion, some levies are 6-year levies, others can be 8-year levies – but if the City were truly focused on a long-term and sustainable funding solution that the levy need to reflect that and, it too, be long-term. Taking what could be argued as essential services our of the ‘GSF bucket’ and placing it in a ‘levy bucket’ adds in the risk that voters could say no – and I think this risk should be minimized by both reducing the frequency of the ask as well as increasing the duration with which DPR can implement plans or re-budget based on voter approved levels.

On my approach recommendation to utilize the levy as a tool capable of diversifying funding sources this is, perhaps, one of the best ways to create a long term and sustainable solution. Businesses diversify their assets, households diversify their portfolios, and it’s about time that municipal governments diversify their income streams. I think that, although unusual to think about in today’s context of municipal funding, this is a serious consideration to be made across many departments. DPS funding is just one example of where this could be utilized.

All in all, the conversation went well and I enjoyed my time talking with those who live their day to day lives on the second floor of City Hall. This was a great experience to put some of the concepts from reading and lecture into practice.

FACTS AND FIGURES

Existing Funding for Seattle Parks and Recreation
•Total 2012 Budget = $123M
•General Fund = $81.4M
•Fees and Charges = $41.5M
*Levy = $0.0M
*Source: Parks SLI Response 83-1-A-1 FINAL.doocx

Comparable Park Agencies
•Renton ($11.2M) = 80% GF, 20% fees
•Shoreline ($4.9M) = 68% GF, 31% fees
•Kirkland (14.2M) = 57% GF, 12% fees, levy
•Bellevue ($50M) = 57% GF, 14 % fees, levy
•Spokane ($17.4M) = 72% GF, 28% fees
•King County ($32.5M) = 0% GF, 15% fees, levy
*Source: Parks SLI Response 83-1-A-1 FINAL.doocx

Public Opinion
Analysis on funding sources for the parks system as a WHOLE: People support a levy: – 76% say they support these options
*Source: Sustainability Survey Results (2011)

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