The Vashon Park District will go broke in 2020 without passing a levy in November.
At a public forum last Wednesday, Commissioners Doug Ostrom and Karen Gardner said that if islanders believe the district will manage somehow, they’re wrong.
“There’s no precedent for the park district having no money, but in fact, that would be the case within a few months [next year],” said Ostrom. “And I think that to a degree, even people who have thought about this a little bit are in disbelief about it.”
About 80% of the district’s annual revenue is provided by its levy, voter-approved in 2015 at $.50 per $1,000 of assessed property value. A renewal is required by state law every four to six years; the district must receive 60% approval for its levy or it will fail. In April, the district put up a $.52 levy ballot measure that fell short with only 54% of islanders voting in favor.
On Nov. 5, Vashon will decide on a $.45 levy for the park district, which commissioners say will support continued maintenance and operations, expand recreational programming and budget for a $400,000 minimum cash reserve.
Attendance was sparse at the forum. But three candidates for the board that would oversee the island’s proposed hospital district were among those in the audience to discuss the issues facing both the park district and their own campaign, along with Ostrom’s wife, Kathy, and a few others listening in.
Ostrom said that without a levy, the district would burn through much of its present cash reserve in the first few months of 2020 and effectively shut down until further notice, reconvening at the earliest opportunity to approve a new tax rate and start the process over again.
Some in the community, he said, have suggested that the district could pursue grants to sustain itself for a while should the levy fail, but Ostrom noted that they can’t be used for pressing expenses such as operations, maintenance or most equipment needs. Moreover, he said, other means of generating revenue to support the district’s asset preservation goals or for making upgrades to existing facilities have had limited success, such as the district’s attempt to raise money from private donors for the installation of a bathroom at the VES soccer fields.
“I think we had zero people offering to help pay for it,” he said.
In the wake of the park district’s failed April levy, Gardner said she learned that misinformation was shared across social media and was hard to challenge.
“I had one person tell me that we were corrupt. I went, ‘What?’” She said. “And I said, ‘Come in and look at our books. Bring your accountant. Take a look at our books. See where we are corrupt.’ And he backed off, of course.”
Ostrom said that many on the island may not realize the extent of the district’s reach, from the 18 properties it owns to the partnerships it has entered over the years, such as the interlocal agreement known as the Vashon Commons between the district and the Vashon Island School District.
Under the agreement, first devised in 1987, the school district makes its grounds and facilities available for the community to use after-hours through the park district, including athletic fields, classrooms and gymnasiums in all three public schools. Interested user groups can reserve the spaces online. In turn, the district pays for access — about $74,000 was budgeted for the commons agreement this year. That figure did not change after the district revised its financial commitments following the election in April.
The agreement extends to properties that are maintained by the park district but are on school grounds — the district holds leases for the Burton Adventure Recreation Park and the community pool and is liable for their upkeep, according to executive director Elaine Ott-Rocheford.
The commons agreement has been fraught at times. In 2017, a rumor that the school district would prohibit access to the public pool until the commons agreement was renewed nearly upended the efforts of the Vashon Seals Swim Team to win over enough park district commissioners who permitted the purchase of the seasonal bubble with a 3-2 vote.
Gardner said that she isn’t sure the school district appreciates how great of an expense it has proven to be over the years to keep functional and open.
“I would think the schools should be shouting very loudly that we all need to support the park district. Because otherwise, they’re going to have to pay for the pool. They’re going to have to pay for more facilities, and they’re going to stand to lose big time if the park district levy fails,” she said.
Ostrom added that the arrangement is unusual and confusing. He noted a letter to the editor printed in The Beachcomber in August written by Tom Dean, executive director of the Vashon-Maury Island Land Trust. Many interpreted it to mean that the pool is an amenity provided by the King County Parks levy. An edited version of the letter is online
He took further issue with the advertising for support of the county parks levy, which was approved by voters last month, believing it could have misled islanders on account of images of a pool and children playing youth sports printed on leaflets mailed to Vashon addresses this summer. He fears some may associate those recreation opportunities with the county and choose to vote down the park district’s levy as a frivolous and unnecessary waste.
Moreover, he noted, in the event that the district’s attempt to pass its levy fails, King County Parks has expressed that it is not a safe bet to assume it would act as the successor taxing district for island parks, as some have suggested. In an email, Ott-Rocheford said she was told that at most, the agency “would potentially assist with a dissolution of VPD.”
Parks vs. health care
Islander Eric Pryne, who is a commissioner candidate for the proposed hospital district, was at the forum and said that persistent sentiment on the island about the measures on the November ballot — that a vote to form a hospital district would kill parks or vice versa — is unfounded.
“It’s not a binary choice,” he said, adding that he intends to vote for the park district’s levy.
But forming a hospital district could curb the revenue of the other local taxing districts on the island. Combined, they can all levy up to $5.90 per $1,000 of assessed property value.
However, if that limit is exceeded, “prorationing” occurs, which reduces the tax revenue of the districts in a particular order. As it stands, the park district would be the first to fall, potentially losing hundreds of thousands of dollars of annual revenue.
Taking into account the property values and tax rates on Vashon this year, and the park district’s ballot measure for a $.45 levy rate, Pryne said there is currently $.62 remaining under the $5.90 limit. That could leave enough funds to form a hospital district on Vashon and support a clinic, sparing the park district from harm.
Members of the Vashon-Maury Island Health Collaborative have suggested in the past that they would be interested in pursuing a .$45 levy to fund a clinic on Vashon. The problem with that target is time — if islanders vote to form a hospital district in November, the commissioners on the board they create would not be able to implement a levy until 2021.
In a follow-up conversation, Pryne said that between now and then, a host of variables may affect how much capacity is left under the $5.90 limit. Island property values could fluctuate. The King County Library System may seek a levy lid lift that it put off this year, from $.33 rate to $.50. Such a measure could narrow the odds that both a sufficiently funded Vashon hospital district and park district could exist harmoniously — and put pressure on other taxing districts as well.
“It’s impossible to forecast it so far, but I also tell people that if there is going to be a problem, we will all know it in advance and we can talk,” said Pryne at the forum. “The point is that we can be creative and work together because we may represent — or potentially represent — different segments of interests on this island, but we all have the interests of the whole island at heart.”
According to a Washington state statute, a public hospital district may levy up to $.75 without a public vote after commissioners establish a rate, and like all taxing districts on the island would be subject to a 1% annual increase unless voters raise that amount.
Wendy Noble, who is also running to become a commissioner for the proposed hospital district, asked Ostrom and Gardner to push back against any notion they may hear that island health care advocates have definitive plans to go after $.75. She added that Vashon would not be as appealing a place to live without parks or adequate health care.
“I really don’t understand why … anybody could see not having a health care clinic, and not having really nice parks, as desirable,” she said.
This version of the article corrects a comment by Eric Pryne.