Islanders to vote on park district levy increase

Ballots were mailed to households last weekend. The election deadline is April 23.

This version corrects how much additional money the increased levy would cost property owners per year: $70 for the owners of a $500,000 home.

Islanders will vote beginning this week on the Vashon Park District’s levy, which seeks to raise the rate from 41 cents to 52 cents.

Commissioners say the district’s financial and maintenance goals depend on the result of the election, which would increase park district tax revenue from $1.3 million to $1.8 million. The levy provides the bulk of the district’s operating funds.

At public meetings, district commissioners have frequently weighed how much is appropriate to ask of the island’s voters. They say the levy is necessary to support operations purposes, specifically the expansion of programming. They also say it will allow the district to meet its goal of establishing a $400,000 minimum permanent reserve and that it will allow the district to complete a list of deferred maintenance projects as outlined in a strategic plan completed by district commissioners last winter.

In 2015, islanders narrowly approved a four-year, 50-cent levy for the district. Executive Director Elaine Ott-Rocheford said that rate has eroded to 41 cents since then due to the increase of assessed property values on the island. She has also stated that unless the district changed its commitments, under a 50 cent levy, it would have to borrow in order to expand programming and complete deferred maintenance projects. But she has expressed that board members would be unwilling to do that.

The increased levy would cost the owner of a $500,000 home approximately $70 more per year than they are paying now.

The district has put the levy forward at a time when many are weighing the possibility of supporting a hospital taxing district to provide for health services on Vashon, as the Neighborcare Clinic at Sunrise Ridge is operating at a $350,000 annual deficit. King County has proposed a 4-cent levy increase for its parks division this year, and residents will have to choose whether to support a King County Library System levy increase of about 17 cents. Those measures will be on the ballot later this year.

In a recent phone conversation, Ott-Rocheford said it is the voters who will decide how much they want to invest in the district’s recreation offerings and many parks it oversees.

“The park district’s preference for our levy is for it to run on its own merits and to be an honest portrayal about what our needs are, and really not have those other levy issues as part of this conversation,” she said. “We want voters to make the decision that is right for them regarding parks and taxes.”

Earlier this year, the district received welcomed news relevant to anyone who followed news of prior financial mismanagement during the VES Fields project years, before the current board was in place. The state auditor’s office determined the district is now in good financial standing.

The annual state accountability audit determined that in all examined areas from 2016 to 2017, the district “complied with applicable state laws, regulations, and its own policies, and provided adequate controls over the safeguarding of public resources.”

But in 2018 the district also wrestled with several contentious issues, including the resignation of former commissioner Scott Harvey over a staff wage increase plan, months of back and forth negotiations with the Vashon Island Fire & Rescue over the terms of an interlocal agreement — still ongoing — and deepening worry over the future of the popular Tramp Harbor Dock.

Board Chair Bob McMahon said that when he first joined the park district in 2015, it was clear to him and his new colleagues that they were elected as commissioners because voters expected them “to use their heads.”

“We decided we had to get kind of down deep and figure out where the parks were really headed after all the turmoil of the last several years,” he said.

In 2016, the district conducted a broad community survey, assessing input from islanders on maintenance, operations and the completion of other large projects; those results went on to inform the district’s strategic plan.

Voters will soon determine whether or not the district is able to pursue fulfilling the objectives in that plan.

McMahon, for his part, said the 52-cent levy made the most sense to commissioners as being both fiscally sensitive and realistic. He added that completion of a long-term conceptual plan for the park district was one of his personal goals in serving the park district as a commissioner.

“It wasn’t just a one-shot deal of saying, ‘Let’s do this.’ It was based on all the planning we’ve been doing for the last three years,” he said. “We gave it a lot of thought.”

The election deadline for the Vashon Park District is April 23.

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