The Gristle

Four, or Forever

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

FOUR OR FOREVER: Few programs can boast the proven success of Bellingham’s Greenways. A series of three modest property tax levies since 1990 have provided revenues to acquire more than 1,000 acres of open space and connective corridors and begin the work to transform much of this into city parks and trails. Without Greenways, the city would have had no mechanism or means or imperative to quietly and modestly acquire tangible property assets as they were offered or obtained at far below market rates—a remarkably efficient use of public dollars to obtain public value. Without the program, there simply would have been no impetus to do this work. Over the years, the citizen volunteers who have helped guide Greenways policy have shown remarkable insight and dedication in creating equity throughout the city, focusing successive levies on acquiring properties in areas underserved by parks and providing planning advice to help stitch the skein of parklands into a comprehensive whole. And, as nothing increases home value so much as adjacent parkland and public amenities, there is an enlightened self-interest and private benefit to ’hamsters who have supported this modest increase to their property tax—it has paid them back in manifold dividends to their outlay.

Perhaps the sheer success of Greenways explains policymakers’ dread to tinker with any part of it.

The third Greenways levy is scheduled to sunset at the end of this year, and what shall replace it?

Greenways committee members themselves admit the program is in maturity, with perhaps a dozen essential properties outlined in the comprehensive plan still left to acquire. Most are in the north and east (famous among these is trail access to Galbraith Mountain) and, excitingly, some are dedicated to marine enhancements, a commitment to improve public access to Bellingham’s central waterfront. But there is general acknowledgement that the work of a fourth Greenways will shift—as each levy has been shifting in maturity—from energetic acquisition of land to its development into parks. Recognizing that the years of heaviest lifting are behind us, the Greenways committee has recommended scaling back the levy ask from a program high of $0.57 per $1,000 of property valuation to just $.0.50 per $1,000 valuation in Greenways IV, delivering a modest tax reduction to property owners.

Greenways committee chair Seth Fleetwood outlined their vision in a presentation to Bellingham City Council last month. Fleetwood helped initiate the original Greenways and has contributed materially to each successive levy.

“Greenways, perhaps the most popular program in our city’s history, has created new and beloved public places, ensured the creation of more such places, and established the form of a vital green infrastructure for our citizens,” the former City Council member noted. “Based on established needs and past accomplishments, the Greenways IV vision commits our community to ongoing creation, enrichment and expansion of a first-class system of parks, trails natural spaces as we grow.

“At the end of the day, what we’re asking Council to do is continue Greenways,” Fleetwood said. “We think there’s a compelling need for it. We think there is concern if there is a lapse, if we went through a period of time where suddenly the levy was no longer being assessed, and then we tried to bring it back in some form—we think that could be a concern.”

In a follow-up presentation that highlights her operating style, Mayor Kelli Linville this week provided Council members with an alternative vision for the future of Greenways—the formation of a permanent taxing instrument to fund Bellingham parks into perpetuity, a Metropolitan Parks District, a Forever Greenways.

“Earlier this year we had discussed that we were going forward with a Greenways IV, but agreed we were going to look at priorities based on the needs city Parks has, and I had raised the issue of creating a metropolitan parks district,” Linville explained.

The idea is not new. State law created the MPD instrument in 1907 and several cities have adopted them as means to help fund parks, including Tacoma, Seattle, and—most recently—Olympia.

Council in 2015 had considered an effort that would create the MPD versus a fourth Greenways initiative. They decided against it. Council favored the continued periodic involvement of voters in their parks and trails, and they favored the firewall of purpose between Greenways (get the lawn) and Parks (mow the lawn). Among the most staunch supporters of voter consent and mission firewall was Jack Weiss, approaching the end of his term on City Council.

But between that year and this, city policymakers received a gloomy forecast of dwindling reserve fund balances that will be exhausted by the end of the decade unless adjustments are made and cash calls on the city’s general operating fund are reduced or offset through other means.

“My work on Council has provided me with a different perspective about my strong support for Greenways and parks and recreation in general,” Weiss admitted in a recent memo to City Council. “I realize that when the general fund is tight, the first tier of departments that receive the initial and most severe cuts certainly include the Parks Department. This was apparent in 2004 and then, further, the 20 percent department staffing cuts in 2009.

“The MPD,” Weiss noted, “will have two primary advantages. First, it locks in a permanent source of Greenways funds to continue growing our parks system to meet the increased population of the community. Second, it provides a partial (and permanent) source of funding to meet maintenance and operational needs of the parks system.

“Simply said,” Weiss wrote, “when the next budget crisis hits, the Parks Department will have a partial cushion to fall back to because of the independent funding source by the MPD.”

“My goals are, foremost, to institutionalize the importance of our parks by creating a dedicated funding source,” Linville said, “not just park impact fees, not just a Greenways that would help fund projects that come forward every six or ten years, but to actually say we as a community love our parks,” she said. “I am proposing that we do what we need to do for our parks by changing the funding mechanism from a Greenways IV to a Greenways 4Ever.

“It would be similar to what we do now,” she noted, “but would change having to go out every so often for a levy by making a long-term commitment that our parks are not something we balance our budget on.

“This would be something that would help us fund our parks and save money from our general fund” and generate revenues for needed capital improvements not covered by Greenways, she summarized.

Linville assured Council that a dependable source of revenues from the creation of a permanent MPD would deliver savings to the city in terms of long-term planning and staffing decisions.

“We’re making a permanent commitment to not having our parks budget go up and down” based on where the city is in a levy cycle, Linville explained.

Greenways committee members have expressed their concerns about the formation of an MPD—that it would continue to pursue the parkland acquisitions outlined in the comprehensive plan and finish the final work of this great program; that it would continue to seek the active, committed involvement and oversight by citizen volunteers; and that it would contain controls so the MPD would not simply become a slush fund for bloated parks operations—but apart from those concerns, and with assurances, the committee could live with the shift from Greenways IV to Greenways 4Ever.

The clock may run out before the debate ends, however. Council continues to have many questions and a healthy skepticism of what some on Council consider a fairly radical shift in emphasis from a finite parkland acquisitions levy to a permanent special purpose taxing district intended to fund city Parks; others on Council say they won’t agree to place anything on a ballot unless there is unanimous consensus and support from the whole Council. Perhaps, some of them say, we need an interim Greenways to carry through opportunity and assurance for the creation of an MPD.

A Metropolitan Parks District is an idea whose time has come. Unfortunately, there may not be enough time to make it so.

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