Islanders will determine the fate of park district

In November, they will decide if the district stays operational or not.

  • Wednesday, July 31, 2019 11:12am
  • Opinion
Doug Ostrom.

Doug Ostrom.

“You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.”

Those memorable words from singer-songwriter Joni Mitchell could soon apply to the Vashon Park District (VPD). The park district proposed a 2020 levy renewal last April, but the measure came up short of the full 60% needed for voter approval. This raised the prospect that the park district could have virtually no funds to operate after this year. In a very real sense, this November Vashon voters — when they vote on a reduced levy — will be deciding whether they want a Vashon-based park district.

The park district levy will share a crowded November ballot with the proposal for a Vashon hospital district. The park district’s levy, if approved, would not affect the funds available for the hospital district.

VPD does generate revenue from other sources other than the levy, but they would not sustain the district. VPD has to spend money to collect money. For example, the park district collects fees for use of the soccer fields, but the fields would be unusable quite quickly were it not for the much larger expenses VPD incurs in maintenance costs. No maintenance, no soccer, no fees.

VPD also receives grants from government agencies. In fact, Executive Director Elaine Ott-Rocheford and volunteers have compiled an enviable record of prying loose these funds for VPD benefit. But typically these grants are earmarked for capital projects, not everyday needs. Absent a successful levy, these projects at Burton skate park or the Ober Playground, for example, could wither for lack of maintenance and daily upkeep. Few organizations give grants for collecting garbage, mowing grass or vehicle gasoline and breakdowns.

What about volunteers? Could they pick up the slack? The park district has wonderful volunteers, but they can only do so much. At least one of the Burton Acres volunteers spent an entire day clearing paths and removing fallen branches this winter in the aftermath of our heavy snowfall this year. This was in addition to his day job for another employer. It is not reasonable to ask him and others like him to do even more.

Does VPD have cash hidden away sufficient to sustain operations without a levy? No. The Vashon Park District board made a difficult decision several years ago to get out from under a system in which it borrowed money every year to meet expenses that arose ahead of the receipt of levy monies, which are concentrated around the same time we all pay property taxes in April and October. These borrowed funds were the government equivalent of payday loans; state auditors criticized the district for this practice. VPD ran operating surpluses to get rid of them. In their place is a cash reserve to meet the expenses that previously were met by these loans. So if the levy fails in November, we will still have these reserve funds to keep us going for a few months. In other words, they would provide a few months respite from shutdown.

After that, darkness. If the levy fails again, VPD would have no money by this time next year to do much of anything. Concerts in the Parks would be a thing of the past as would practice space for Drama Dock. Even if the board were inclined to submit the levy for approval a third time and it were successful, few funds would be available until early 2021 at the earliest, and “rebooting” VPD would take weeks or months beyond that.

Many of the park district’s activities happen on properties belonging to other entities, and how they would respond to VPD’s shutdown is unknown. Would the school district replace the park district in operating the pool, the VES fields for soccer, lacrosse and baseball, and the Burton skate park? Moreover, the school district would lose the thousands of dollars the park district pays it each year for use and upkeep of school facilities. The school district would have to choose between not having these activities or taking on significant new burdens in addition to lower receipts. We have on pretty good authority that the Coast Guard is not interested in overall maintenance of Point Robinson; they are focused on the lighthouse function per se. The lighthouse Keepers, a dedicated volunteer group, could perhaps do even more than they do now, but, as with Burton Acres, it is a lot to ask.

It is likely that those park district activities that employ a lot of people would quickly feel the hurt. Lifeguards need to be paid, as do workers maintaining soccer fields. Both the pool and VES fields would likely be closed within months, if not sooner. The park district’s shared responsibility for Fisher Pond would go unmet, putting more burden on the Land Trust, which does not have tax revenue and might well be overwhelmed.

Ultimately, we would not be left with a parking lot, having paved over paradise, as Joni Mitchell laments. Instead we will be left with a huge sandpile that once was an expensive athletic field. Indeed, the parking lots we do have already would become weed infested with huge potholes behind, in some cases, closed entry gates. Exaggerated as the comparison might seem, in November we will be choosing between an admittedly incomplete paradise and this dystopian outcome.

— Doug Ostrom is a member of the Vashon Park District board.

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