The Vashon Park District offices at Ober Park (Paul Rowley/Staff Photo).

The Vashon Park District offices at Ober Park (Paul Rowley/Staff Photo).

Bill to safeguard park services stalls

“We want to make sure that the park district can maintain its operations,” said Rep. Joe Fitzgibbon.

After speaking to officials of the Vashon Park District in December, Rep. Joe Fitzgibbon drafted legislation to rewrite state tax law and allow for park and recreation districts in Washington to receive tax revenue outside of the chokehold of the “local district” limit required by state law. But for now, the bill isn’t going anywhere.

Under Fitzgibbon’s legislation, first introduced and read in January, park and recreation districts such as the Vashon Park District would collect revenue from the “$.50 cent gap,” a reserve of funds available for various needs. That reserve belongs to what is referred to as the state’s $10 constitutional limit, or the maximum annual rate of property taxes that may be imposed on property owners.

In the case of the island’s park district, such a bill would have defended the district against “prorationing” — reducing the revenue that so-called “junior” taxing districts, such as the park district, receive — in the event the levies of other local taxing districts on the island exceeded $5.90 per $1,000 of assessed property value.

That’s the combined limit for cities, counties and most special districts under Washington law. Beyond that limit, junior taxing districts would see reductions to their levy rates. On Vashon, the park district would be the first to be affected, standing to lose hundreds of thousands of dollars of annual revenue.

Commissioners of the newly formed Vashon Healthcare District anticipate levying funds in 2021, likely in the range of $.45 cents per $1,000 of assessed property value as was floated by the campaign to establish the district last year. Previously, there was enough room to support the priorities of a healthcare district while sparing the park district from harm. But later this year, voters may consider possible ballot measures for levy lid lifts such as for the King County Library System and county roads, closing what margin exists for junior taxing districts to coexist — and pushing the Vashon Park District closer to the edge.

In an interview last week with The Beachcomber, Fitzgibbon said the goal of the bill was to ensure that the park district could continue to collect its levy and perform the functions it does now, while other districts start collecting their own levies or potentially gear up to raise their rate by voter approval.

He added his hope that even without the bill, the park district will still be able to collect its levy for the foreseeable future.

“We want to make sure that the park district can maintain its operations,” he said. But he did not have confidence that the legislation had much of a chance as it was during this session, saying last week that he did not expect it to pass.

“I think the park district is going to be OK, at least in the short term,” he said, noting that the situation is complicated by factors such as levy rate erosion due to the increase of assessed property values. He added that he believes it is important for the island healthcare district commissioners to commit to a $.45 cent levy to provide for the costs of care while not affecting the park district.

The legislation was sponsored by Rep. Eileen Cody and made it to the House finance committee. But on Monday, Fitzgibbon’s office confirmed that it won’t get any farther in time to move on or pass.

The $10 constitutional limit is divided up into three categories: “State,” or the state school fund, limited to $3.60 per $1,000 of assessed property value; “local districts,” such as fire, healthcare, library, water, flood control and cemetery; and the so-called “$.50 cent gap” of remaining capacity. It’s usually made available for preserving open spaces, providing for emergency medical services or affordable housing projects, supporting metropolitan parks or ferry service. But Fitzgibbon said there is still plenty of capacity in the $.50 cent gap today to support the Vashon Park District.

Moreover, if the bill makes its way back to the House next year, and someday, the district began collecting revenue from the $.50 cent gap, the only pressure on the funds available would be if the other entities who currently use the gap would seek to take advantage of all the revenue that exists there. In that scenario, the park district would also be prorationed.

“The good thing is that there’s not anywhere in the state where there is a park district where the gap is close to being utilized, “ Fitzgibbon said. “It’s essentially moving [the park district] from a more crowded slice of property tax authority to a less crowded slice.”

There would be no change to the district’s current voter-approved $.45 cent levy rate under the bill, and its levy would still need 60% approval to be renewed in a future election. But broad support from islanders for the district’s levy last November, said Fitzgibbon, was the impetus for drafting the legislation.

“Vashon voters have indicated they care about their park district,” he said.

Elaine Ott-Rocheford, executive director of the park district, said in an interview that she and commissioners felt it was prudent to take a proactive step in talking with elected officials about the potential for being prorationed, bearing in mind the incoming healthcare district levy, the Vashon Island Fire & Rescue board moving to increase its levy rate from $1.43 to $1.47 per $1,000 of assessed value in November, and potential levy lid lifts on the horizon.

“We’re getting our ducks in a row. The House bill is written and Reps. Fitzgibbon and Cody have indicated their interest in putting this through in the fall when we really have substantial information,” said Ott-Rocheford. “We’re not ready to push the panic button right at this moment, but I’ve learned through this process that waiting until the last minute is not a good idea.”

She noted her confidence in the momentum going forward into the fall for the 2021 legislative session, that the district would have the support it may need to make a case for protecting its services.

Captain Joe Wubbold, president of the Keepers of Point Robinson, is a regular attendee of park district meetings and said that, based on his own bureaucratic experience, he was certain that Fitzgibbon’s bill would go nowhere. But he believes there is enough power locally to make progress, proposing that representatives of the island’s “junior” taxing districts, facing the possibility of prorationing themselves, meet publicly and “hammer out a way forward. And that means some compromise on everybody’s part.”

“That’s the way I hope we could go at it. Everybody does a little bit better than the minimum, nobody gets the maximum, and everyone has contributed to the general welfare of the island community,” he said.

Wubbold added his belief that a new community council would be a logical place to bring such an effort together.

For his part, David Vogel, who recently hosted the first meeting of a committee to form a new Vashon-Maury Island Community Council, said the group is well-suited for the challenge of taking on state tax law.

“I think that’s a sort of thing when we can say, ‘look, this is an island-wide problem, it needs a comprehensive solution.’ One district can’t take it on itself,” he said, adding that the process of learning about state tax law while bringing more attention to the issues it presents would be a challenge for a new island community council, but one he said would be welcomed.

“I can’t say we’re going to solve the problem, but where else are you going to try it?” He said.

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