A consultant told Kent city leaders they should consider asking voters to create a metropolitan park district to fund the park system rather than using money from the city’s general fund.
“Quite frankly, you need to explore this,” said Leon Younger, president of Indiana-based Pros Consulting Inc., during a City Council workshop Nov. 19 about the Parks, Recreation and Community Services comprehensive program plan. “It’s a real opportunity. If you look across the United States and here in Washington, the best-funded systems are park districts.
“It’s hard for the park system, even if you invest in the system, it’s hard to compete (for funds) against police and fire.”
A park district would be funded by a property tax levy (which voters must approve) and most likely overseen by the council. It would be somewhat similar to when voters approved the formation of the Puget Sound Regional Fire Authority in 2010, funded by property taxes and a fire benefit charge. That took the fire department, with its own taxing authority, out of the Kent city budget and no longer in competition for general fund dollars against police and other departments.
The council over the last decade or so made parks a lower priority than other departments, cutting staff and holding off on maintenance projects or improvements at all but a few parks. The department lost six full-time positions between 2005 and 2019 while during the same time the city increased staffing by 108 people, according to Pros Consulting. City leaders raised the B&O warehouse square footage tax starting in 2019 to bring in about in about $3 million per year to help pay for parks maintenance and other capital improvement projects.
“Seattle went through this a couple of years ago, and I know you have talked about it,” Younger said about forming a park district. “It creates a sense of an agency with dedicated funding.”
Younger didn’t discuss how much revenue that a park district in Kent could raise or how much property owners would pay. The council didn’t ask any questions about cost or discuss revenue options. That discussion could come next year if enough council members support asking voters for more money.
The city hired Pros Consulting to receive up to $92,160 to work with city parks staff and residents to come up with a comprehensive parks plan. Pros Consulting is the same company the city hired for $60,000 in 2017 to design a business plan to try to make the Riverbend Golf Complex profitable.
In 2010, then-Kent Fire Chief Jim Schneider helped lead the separation of the fire department from the city because of the constant fight for funds against other departments. The council had cut the fire department’s budget, which led fire officials to look at other funding solutions such as a regional fire authority, which is authorized by the state.
A couple dozen cities in Washington have sought voter approval of a park district with mixed results, according to the Seattle-based Municipal Research and Services Center. Twenty-one park districts exist in the state.
Voters in Seattle and Olympia approved park districts in 2014. Tukwila voters in 2011 approved a park district to run the Tukwila Pool. Voters in Des Moines and Normandy Park approved a park district in 2009 to run the Mt. Rainier Pool in Des Moines. Tacoma has had a park district since 1907, the first in the state.
Voters in several other cities turned down park district proposals in the last seven years including Lacey (2018), Snohomish (2015), Kirkland (2015), Bonney Lake (2013) and Vancouver (2012).
Current Councilmember Brenda Fincher spoke in favor of a park district when she ran for office in 2017. Current Councilmember Toni Troutner said during her 2017 campaign that voters would need to be educated about how a park district works before she would consider such a measure.
Nobody on the council commented about a potential park district after Younger and Parks Director Julie Parascondola finished their workshop report. Parascondola said that the department will have more specifics about funding options when staff meets in May with Mayor Dana Ralph to talk about the 2021-2022 budget.
Kent voters turned down a levy in 2012 that would have raised $18 million for parks and $11 million for streets over six years. The council hasn’t gone back to voters for parks funding since that measure.
The council agreed after a June presentation by parks staff and the consultant that the department needs to be a higher priority. But council members didn’t discuss any potential ways to raise more revenue for parks.
In addition to more money for parks, city leaders are considering asking voters to approve more funds for police. Ralph and Police Chief Rafael Padilla have talked about putting a measure before voters next year to hire more officers. Voters rejected a 2018 hike in utility taxes to pay for more officers.