The Vashon Park District board agreed unanimously to propose a 45 cent, four-year levy for the November ballot to provide for the district’s operating funds and maintenance needs.
For weeks, commissioners have debated the merits of a 45 cent levy amid the risk of offending tax- weary islanders who defeated their bid in April to raise the district’s levy rate from 41 cents to 52 cents per $1,000 of assessed property value. But after King County reported in June that property values on the island have not increased in pace with economic forecasts for unincorporated areas, last week the board voted in favor of a 45 cent levy, which they say will be enough to account for the district’s financial goals and for tackling urgent repairs at park facilities.
The district will be unable to function without passing a levy later this year.
Commissioner Hans Van Dusen was one of the earliest proponents of a 45 cent levy rate, while several commissioners, including Executive Director Elaine Ott-Rocheford, said during initial discussions that they preferred 41 cents because it would not raise property taxes and would resonate most with voters.
“Even at 45 [cents], we’re just staying open and acting responsibly. We’re not building piers or pools or anything else,” said Van Dusen at the board’s meeting last week.
He was referring to some of the district’s most pressing needs, including the Tramp Harbor Dock, which may have to come down because of longtime structural deficiencies amid ongoing negotiations with the state Department of Natural Resources over the lease of the tidelands beneath a 160-foot portion of it.
Moreover, the Vashon Pool is in need of repairs to the decking and drainage system, among other upgrades that Ott-Rocheford said amount to more than $900,000.
The district’s previous 50 cent levy has eroded to 41 cents over time due to the increase of assessed property values on the island. After the district lost its election to raise its levy to 52 cents in the spring, commissioners regrouped and weighed their options.
At the recent meeting, Ott-Rocheford said that based on her projections, the district would be able to adequately manage its cash flow with a 41 cent levy over the next four years. But she said it would not allow the district to meet its goal of establishing a $400,000 minimum permanent reserve, intended as a buffer for managing cash flow during the months before the district would receive levy money from the county.
Additionally, said Ott- Rocheford, the district would only be left with $104,000 total to respond to maintenance needs before 2024.
“A consistent 41 cent levy is not sustainable in the long run without making some pretty significant adjustments,” said Ott-Rocheford at the meeting. “If we had an emergency, that does not get us very far, and it barely scratches the surface of what we need to address for our high priority items.”
By contrast, a 45 cent levy, said Ott-Rocheford, allows the district to meet its reserve goal while setting aside about $500,000 for capital improvement projects over four years. Those funds would help address a combined $218,000 of vital asset preservation needs and allow the district to respond to emergencies such as the potential failure of the aging septic system at the Point Robinson Keeper’s Quarters. Replacing it could run as much as $100,000.
Also factoring into the commissioners’ decision to run a 45 cent levy was the anticipated creation of a hospital district on Vashon, which islanders will vote on in November.
Passing a hospital district could reduce the park district’s income if the combined tax rates for local taxing districts — such as for county, fire, cemetery and parks — exceeds $5.90 per $1,000 of assessed property value. Were that to happen, in accordance with state law, the tax revenue of so-called “junior” taxing districts would be scaled back, with the park district first to be affected.
In a conversation with The Beachcomber, Ott- Rocheford said that among the district’s talking points about the issue is that its levy, relative to the hospital district, is not an either/or scenario. Islanders, she said, should not think they will need to choose health care over parks, or vice versa.
“There is absolutely room [for both] in the junior taxing district model,” she said. “Flat out, my belief is we can coexist.” She added, however, that it will depend on what those who represent a hospital district choose for a levy rate to support island health care.
All told, under the proposed levy rate of 45 cents, the park district would see its annual tax revenue increase from $1.3 million to $1.5 million.
“There’s much that has gone into it,” said board chair Bob McMahon about the rate decision in a phone conversation Monday, adding that a number of deferred maintenance projects listed in the district’s strategic plan will be delayed because of the limited funds to complete them.
“We have to stay on top of that stuff,” said McMahon. He added that commissioners have devoted a lot of time to understanding why the campaign for a 52 cent levy failed.
“Part of it is, we needed to say more before that vote, and we needed to better publicize why we were doing what we were doing,” he said.
McMahon said the district has heard feedback from islanders, who should expect more clarification about what the levy is for.
“The word will get out now, and they’ll have a better idea of what this is all about,” he said.