Metropolitan Park District: Bringing in needed money, with strings attached

Rodika Tollefson and William Dietz, KP News With the failure of the park levy last fall, Key Peninsula Park and Recreation District officials say the park board is left with very few options and could even close doors. With less than $15,000 left in the bank account at the end of February—and with a pending bill from previous elections for about $11,000—the district is running out of money. Park board Chair Mike Salatino said in February he will work with the county to extend the payment terms, but if the election bill had to be paid immediately, the district might be going out of business. “In the event metro (the proposed Metropolitan Park District) doesn’t pass and we (the current district) are still here, all contracts are off and we’re going to have to raise fees,” Salatino told Little League representatives at a February park board meeting.
Key Pen News Forum The Key Peninsula News, working directly with Councilman Terry Lee and the Pierce County Council, plans to cohost a candidate’s forum at the Civic Center tentatively scheduled for May 11 at 6:30 p.m. Details are being worked out and will be published in the May issue. The public will be invited to participate and to ask MPD board candidates questions. Filing period estimated to be April 5-9; call the county at 798-7427.
The creation of a government body called a Metropolitan Park District (MPD), which would receive some of the zoo/trek sales tax that currently goes to the county, has the overwhelming support of the current park board and community members who say that without it the future of Key Peninsula parks is uncertain. Based on population, Key Pen parks would receive an estimated $100,000 per year from money residents are already paying as part of the sales tax but is now supporting parks programs elsewhere. Thanks to that money, supporters say, the local parks would finally have the financial muscle needed to carry out a variety of improvements and programs. Salatino suggested during a previous conversation with KP News that the MPD would “…provide us with perpetual funding from existing tax revenues already being paid to the county to fund zoo/trek,” and the MPD formation committee has maintained that the creation of the district would not raise taxes but simply “recapture sales tax you already pay.” However, should residents vote to approve the new district, they will be creating a board that will have the power to impose levies every year without the taxpayers’ approval—essentially casting a vote to potentially authorize new taxes. Zoo/trek sales tax From the start, the Key Peninsula Metropolitan Park Formation Committee, led by Chairman Ben Thompson, and with encouragement from the Key Peninsula Parks and Recreation District led by Salatino, have maintained that an MPD would not only provide a stable source of funding but also relieve the Peninsula’s taxpayers of the need to pass special levies like the one voters rejected by a narrow margin last September. That notion is based on the fact that an MPD would stand to share in the revenues produced by a county sales tax that is already being collected. “What happens with sales tax for zoos and parks is that one half of the money goes to accredited zoos and parks, and most of the other half goes to parks and recreation, depending on the population a particular area has,” said Byron Olson, director of management and budget for the city of Tacoma’s MPD. “For example, Tacoma gets about two-sevenths of that, because we have about two-sevenths of the population.” Tacoma, in fact, had one of the few MPDs in the state until the Legislature authorized in 2002 for unincorporated areas to form such districts. However, when asked whether income from the zoo/trek tax was likely to fluctuate with the economy, Olson said, “You bet! You try and forecast as best you can. You work with folks to create an economic forecast based on past history. It fluctuates by year and by month.” That means that a newly formed MPD’s yearly anticipated revenue of $100,000 would largely depend on how well the economy is doing—although on the flip side, an increase in sales tax revenue would potentially increase that income accordingly. The good news is for the time being the economy forecast looks good, according to officials from the county’s budget department, who say they don’t anticipate sales tax revenue to be changing dramatically in the near future. Those who favor creation of an MPD have repeatedly declined to discuss any potential budget that would show what the $100,000 would pay for (see a budget scenario devised by KP News, related story, “How far could MPD stretch $100,000?” ). The committee would only say that it would be up to the newly elected commissioners to decide how such funds would be spent. The new commissioners would be elected concurrently with the creation of the MPD itself—the second part of the ballot will have candidates’ names, with the five with the most votes comprising the new board. ‘No new taxes’? Another aspect not widely disclosed—until KP News began pressing the committee for answers in February— was the fact that under state law (RCW 35.61.210), the duly elected members of a Metropolitan Park Board would have the power to raise taxes up to 75-cents per-year per $1,000 worth of assessed property, in addition to he theoretical $100,000 from the zoo/trek tax, and without specific approval from local taxpayers. There are limits set by a formula, however, which would currently hold such increases to a maximum of 25 cents per $1,000 of assessed property value, based on 2004 levy figures. Those limits would change once again in 2005, as each senior taxing district resubmits yearly levy figures. In contrast, taxpayers would have paid only 10 cents per $1,000 of assessed property values had they approved the KPPRD levy last fall. The MPD board will also have the authority to issue bonds against the levy income without voter approval. “You have to careful with how much information you feed to the public, ”Thompson said in early March in explanation to why the levy authority was not being discussed in promotional literature and public meetings so far. “Just the name is confusing, the very concept is confusing…We’re trying to get a message across to the populace and if you make it too complicated, they will not absorb it.” Thompson contended that he didn’t think the possibility of new taxes would make the issue more negative—and that “there aren’t going to be new taxes as a direct result of the creation of the district.” “The information is available to anyone who wants to research it, I certainly don’t advocate withholding information,” he said. But this “need to know” approach has left some tentative supporters with unanswered questions. Kym Carpenter, treasurer of the local adult softball league, said the league was concerned with not knowing how commissioners will spend the money and whether all the parks would be treated fairly. The softball league together with other Key Pen Sports Center users form the only source of revenue for the park board currently. The MPD committee is relying on these user groups to help generate “yes” votes. “In my opinion, everything we’re doing is for the good of the community and they need to be more upfront,” Carpenter said. My concern is that a couple of years down the road they will come back with a levy, and people will not like that because they are being told there will not be new taxes.” The fact that an MPD board would be authorized to impose a levy within a few months, without any voter approval, was news to Carpenter. But even with the potential $100,000—a windfall compared with the current district’s projected $20,000 income—and with the potential additional 75 cent levy, the MPD could come up short and have to ask voters for more. That’s because as a junior taxing district, the MPD “would only get the crumbs from the bottom of the pile,” in the words of County Assessor-Treasurer Ken Madsen, "in a complex formula that sets the limit for all local district levies at $5.90 per year with limited allowed increase to the aggregate amount per year (that lid can be “lifted” through the regular voter election process for additional levies or bonds). “It would give them (the MPD) the lowest priority,” when it comes to levy assessment, Madsen said. What that means is other districts—such as fire, library, county roads and county “existing projects”—get first priority on annual levy amounts, based on their individual limit, and all junior districts such MPDs created after 2002 would be prorated first—which is why currently only cents of the 75 would be available to MPD before the $5.90 limit is met. “The only reason there is any money left for the metropolitan park district because of the other levies that are not their maximum amount,” said Mae Shepard-Smith with the county’s levy office. Although the MPD formation committee insists there are no immediate taxes be created and that they are not going after the “17 cents” (the figure used in original discussions and by other media instead of the correct 25 cent), the decision would be made by the new board, not them. Gig Harbor, a group going through a similar process, in fact, is banking mostly on that levy to fund a proposed Gig Harbor Metropolitan Park District. And, based on their population count, the zoo/trek tax would bring in $200,000 a year, with about triple that from the levy based on the current capacity. “In our view, there is money available now and it doesn’t make sense not to (collect it),” said Eric Guenther, one of the organizers of the Gig Harbor MPD. “The levy rate is what’s on the table….but it’s all fluid and will be all decided by the elected board.” ‘Commissioners are key’ Levy or not, Carpenter is uneasy about voting for a sort of an open concept—a district that would receive money, yet no one knows how it will be spent and what parks will be favored until new members are elected. She is one of several residents who express that concern. Which is why, Thomspon said, the new commissioners are the key. Not only would the commissioners have the authority to vote themselves an annual salary of up to $6,720 but it would also be their responsibility to choose which projects and parks would get the money. That includes the possibility of future parks, including the Purdy Spit, currently owned by the county, but which would be offered to the MPD. If the MPD accepted the ownership of the park, it would wind up deciding the fate of the sometimes-controversial Wauna Post Office historic building. Pierce County Councilman Terry Lee supports the MPD proposal, and planned to promote it extensively. “Without any money, you don’t have much muscle—this will give them the muscle to finance their dreams… and will peel off the reliance on Pierce County and become independent,” he said. “I have high hopes the (new) park district commissioners will fairly represent the community.” In March, the Pierce County Council approved a resolution to call for an election on the proposed MPD, effectively making the election official. Tacoma’s Olson, who works with MPD related issues every day, said while the district has many advantages, creating it “isn’t the perfect answer to anything.” “It’s not like it’s free money,” he said. “Once you create one, taxes will go up. Folks need to really understand what they will pay and what services they will receive. It’s important to make sure that you don’t create false expectations.” Thompson, Salatino and other committee members maintain that without the MPD the future of the Key Peninsula Park is up in the air, and the Sports Center gates may have to be locked come summertime. “What will Little League and adult organizations do this summer?” Thompson said. “We are offering a dependable method of financing for the foreseeable future. Will it be enough to do everything we want done on the Key Peninsula? No. Will it ever be enough? No. Will it be adequate? Yes. I think we’ll have a solvent district. Could it be abused? Yes. You avoid abuse by careful selection of representatives….I think this community will see the benefits and recognize the risks, and they will vote for it.” Based on the crowded committee meetings so far and the outpouring of support, the community indeed sees the benefit. And all that’s needed is for a simple majority of those who vote on May 18 to say yes. But even more important on whether or not the community votes is what comes next—should the metro district be created, the only way for it to be successful is through continued public scrutiny and participation. It would be up to the citizens to elect a well-rounded, well-qualified board that is committed to represent all interests and groups—and up to these same citizens to make sure the elected representatives deliver on their promises. Related Links: How far could $100,000 be stretched? Park Board Ponders Future - March 2004 KP News Metropolitan Park District Election May 18