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Prop. 1 – to preserve Tacoma’s parks

Post by Patrick O'Callahan on April 10, 2010 at 6:09 pm |
April 9, 2010 6:11 pm

This editorial will appear in Sunday’s print edition.

When you’ve invested a fortune in beautiful and popular parks, you don’t let them fall apart. That’s a compelling reason to vote yes for Proposition 1 on Tacoma’s April 27 ballot.

For a city its size, Tacoma has one of the most spectacular park systems in the nation.

Point Defiance alone – with its zoo, aquarium, marina, heart-stopping views and expanses of old growth forest – would be a crown jewel in any American city. Then there’s Ruston Way, with two miles of promenades, beaches, fishing, picnic spots and panoramic views on the Commencement Bay waterfront.

But the system only begins with those two gems. Metro Parks operates a total of 66 parks throughout Tacoma. Some are small, many are large; they include more than 40 soccer, football and baseball fields; four pools; more than 40 playgrounds; six community centers. They encompass 2,700 acres.

The parks host traditional league sports and community events – but also provide essential social services. A playground drop-in program serves federally subsidized free lunches to low-income children who might otherwise go hungry. After-school “clubs” offer organized activities and field trips. Hundreds of people with disabilities participate in the Special Recreation Program.

It takes serious money to maintain this much real estate and provide these services. But with inflation rising, Metro Parks’ revenues – squeezed by Initiative 747’s 1 percent cap on property taxes – have been falling relative to costs.

In recent years, the park district’s levy rate has fallen from 71 cents to 48 cents per $1,000 of a home’s value. Proposition 1 would increase Metro Parks’ taxing authority to 75 cents, equivalent to an additional $57 a year on a $220,000 home.

This would raise $5.5 million a year, not to buy anything new but to restore the district’s ability to keep the grass green, clean the restrooms, fix the pools, repair the playground equipment, etc. The alternative is a looming $5 million shortfall, which would have to be carved out of what Metro Parks has been providing the citizens of Tacoma.

We would not endorse this measure during a period of economic distress if the park district hadn’t already been aggressively squeezing its expenses. It has.

In response to its declining revenue, Metro Parks has reduced its staff and cut salaries and benefits by more than $500,000 despite the relentless inflation of medical insurance. Unlike some government agencies, it has required its employees to pay a growing share of their health care premiums – 13 percent this year, going to 14 percent next year. Two-thirds of its employees donate to the park system themselves through payroll deductions.

Proposition 1 is not about letting a fat organization stay fat. It’s about letting a leaned-out operation keep providing the superb parks and recreational programs Tacomans are accustomed to. It would be a shame if this system were allowed to slide.

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