This story will appear in the print edition later this week. There is a Senate committee hearing on Wednesday.
Warning: There is a typo (or so it seems) on Page 3. It says the city is paying Metro Parks $3.08 million over TWO years — Jan. 1, 2009 through Dec. 31, 2010. City spokesman says that should read Dec. 31, 2009. (Seems like a pretty bad typo to remain in a contract, but that’s just me.)
BY Joseph Turner
Advocates for a 100-mile trail system that would connect to every city and town in Pierce County are asking the Legislature to let county voters raise the local sales tax to provide a steady stream of money for parks, trails and open space.
The 1/10th percent increase, which would boost the overall sales tax in Tacoma to 9.4 percent after April, would raise almost $13 million a year. April is when the Sound Transit 1/2-cent sales tax takes effect.
The new parks tax would be in addition to the sales tax hike that voters approved in 2000 to pay for parks. Most of the money from that earlier 0.1 percent park tax goes to support the Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium in Tacoma and Northwest Trek Wildlife Park in Eatonville. A portion goes to the smaller cities and towns in Pierce County.
Senate Bill 5545 would authorize the Pierce County Council to put the parks tax proposal on the ballot if Tacoma and the Metropolitan Park District made such a request.
But there’s nothing imminent, said George Walk, Pierce County’s main lobbyist in Olympia.
"We’re in favor of having that option, but there would be no intent to put it on the ballot this year," Walk said Thursday. "It would be way out there, after lots of public input and discussion."
Jayme Pleasants, executive director of ForeverGreen Council, the main force behind the trail system and the tax to build and maintain it, said about 20 miles of the 100-mile network exists today. It includes the Scott Pierson Trail along Highway 16 between the Nalley Valley Viaduct and across the new Narrows Bridge, the Cushman Trail on the Gig Harbor Peninsula and the Foothills Trail between Buckley and Puyallup, she said. But there are lots of gaps even in the Foothills Trail, she said. It eventually is supposed to reach the Carbon River entrance to Mount Rainier, she said.
ForeverGreen’s goal is to have north-south and east-west network of arterial trails that connects all 24 cities and towns in the county in about 10 years, she said.
"Ideally, the trails would be useful to as many different recreation groups as possible — bicycling, roller blading, jogging, equestrian," she said. "They also would be for non-motorized transportation. They could be commuter routes.
Members of the health-care community also are on the ForeverGreen board because they view the trail network as a way to "give people a safe opportunity to walk and exercise, to go to the store, to walk your child in a stroller," Pleasants said.
After the trail system is built, the stream of money would be used to maintain the trail system. Both bills — there is an identical measure, HB 1810, in the House — would permit the park tax money to be used to buy open space and improve new or existing parks.
A hearing on SB 5545 is set for 8 a.m. Wednesday before the Senate Economic Development, Trade and Innovation Committee. Its chairman, Sen. Jim Kastama, D-Puyallup, is one of the bill’s sponsors.
Pleasants said supporters of the additional parks sales tax are aware they have to overcome some bad feelings over the way the previous tax was handled.
An early version of that first tax bill contained a provision that said if voters approved the new sales tax and have more than half of it to the Metropolitan Park District, the City of Tacoma could not decrease the amount of money it was giving the park district. However, Tacoma successfully lobbied to get that provision struck from the bill. And once the park district starting getting the new tax money, Tacoma slashed its support to Metro Parks.
The first year, Tacoma cuts its contribution from $5.1 million to $3.8 million. The amount has fluctuated since then. In 2003, it was only $2.23 million. Last year, the city gave Metro Parks $3.63 million.
Tacoma was unique for many years. It was the only city in which parks were operated by a totally separate taxing district that collects its own property taxes. In nearly all other cities, the parks and recreation departments must compete with other departments for a portion of city property taxes and other revenues. In Tacoma, the city can devote all of its tax revenues to other programs because Metro Parks is paying for parks.
Tacoma will continue to slash its parks funding. The city recently signed a 10-year contact with Metro Parks in which the city agrees to give the park district $3.1 million this year, then reduce its annual payments by $100,000 a year over the final nine years of the contract. In 2018, the city would be giving parks $2.2 million.
"What’s out there with the Zoo-Trek has left a bad taste in quite a few people’s mouth," Pleasants said. "Our board is aware of that."
The distribution formula for that earlier tax also earmarked very little money for the smaller cities and towns in Pierce County, and the locals were unhappy with that.
Of the $87 million that has been collected from 2001 through 2008, $55 million went to the Zoo, NW Trek or other Metro Parks.
The Metropolitan Parks District of Tacoma also would get a cut of the new sales tax if it is approved.
Metro Parks would get 30 percent of the money. Pierce County would get 40 percent. All the remaining cities, except Tacoma, would share in 20 percent of the money through grant application. The remaining 10 percent would be earmarked for buying open space.
The cities would have to use their grant money to build their parts of the countywide trail system, Pleasants said.
The new proposals also contain language that new money from the parks sales tax cannot be used to replace what Tacoma already has committed to give Metro Parks.
"We fixed that problem," said Kirk Kirkland, a ForeverGreen board member who is lobbying the Legislature on behalf of SB 5545 and the trail system.
Sen. Debbie Regala, D-Tacoma, said she agreed to be the prime sponsor of the tax proposal just to give it an airing. Before her legislative tenure, Regala was a Metro Parks commissioner for six years.
"There will be multiple steps to this," Pleasants said. "We’re saying, ‘Just give us a chance.’ It would still take a long time. It’s not as simple as going out and paving over all the lines (for trails) you’ve drawn on a map."
Joseph Turner: 253-597-8436
Voters in 2000 approved a 0.1 percent increase in the sales tax collected in Pierce County to support the Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium, Northwest Trek Wildlife Park, the Metropolitan Park District of Tacoma and other parks throughout the county. Here’s how much money has been collected from that tax.
2001 $7.3 million
2002 $9.2 million
2003 $9.9 million
2004 $10.4 million
2005 $11.6 million
2006 $12.7 million
2007 $13.2 million
2008 $12.6 million
TOTAL $86.9 million
Source: Washington Department of Revenue