The Seattle Times editorial board argues that keeping King County parks open “require innovative ideas,” and they offer a few innovative ideas of their own:
Park purists must become park pragmatists. The best option is to deed parks to local governments that promise to retain them as open space in perpetuity. Cities have a record managing parks. Cities can assume responsibility as part of annexations, or citizens groups can assume ownership in some cases.
Another Triplett idea with great merit is to deed parks to the library system in exchange for a covenant to retain them as parks, while allowing a library branch to sprout on a small portion of the grounds. The synergy of a library and a park in the same location should be obvious; both spaces would be maintained by the library.
A similar plan to have the housing authority take over some parks offers other benefits. Triplett has gone so far as to suggest partnerships with fire districts.
Huh. Well, as long as the Times is encouraging us to be both pragmatic and innovative, I’ve got a creative idea of my own as to how to keep our parks open: why don’t we just pay for them?
I mean, honestly, all the proposals above succeed in doing is shifting the costs of park maintenance from county government to city and other local governments. Whether the county or a city or a (really?) fire district owns the deed, it doesn’t much change the cost of maintaining a park, and taxpayers still ultimately pick up the bill. The only difference being, rather than all of us helping to pay for all of the parks countywide, each community will only have to pay for its own.
Does this Balkanization of our park system fulfill any civic objective larger than budgetary chicanery? Not really. But it does highlight the screwed up way we hamstring the funding of local services.
See, unlike things like courts and jails, parks operations are considered a discretionary activity for county government, and thus have no secure hold on any piece of the general fund. And without the statutory authority to create a countywide parks district, this leaves county parks with no regular levy of their own. The county can ask voters to approve special parks levies every few years, but this is never an easy or politically popular task, and it certainly isn’t a sustainable approach to long term budgeting.
That’s where we get all the so-called “innovative” talk of shoving parks off on library and fire districts; they do have their own regular levies, and as they provide popular, quantifiable services, they generally have an easier time than counties passing lid lifts and special levies. It’s not that it makes any particular sense to have a library or fire district maintaining a park, it’s just that some of them have the resources to pay for them, while due to its inflexible revenue structure, the county does not.
So if the Times’ editors really want to get innovative about funding parks, it’s time they look beyond the parks themselves and start focusing on fixing the arcane and inadequate tax system that is forcing these sort of bizarre contortions. As our region has grown in population and wealth, we have naturally demanded more parks and open space, and it’s past time we give the county the means to pay for it.