When islanders cast their ballots for the Nov. 19, 2019 election to determine whether or not a health care district would be established on Vashon, many might have done so after reading up on the issue in the King County Official Voters’ Pamphlet for that election.
For that voter’s guide, islander Hilary Emmer penned a statement of opposition to the measure, warning that if the Health Care District’s commissioners chose to levy an annual property tax for the district above a certain threshold, the result could decimate the Park District’s budget.
In response, Sharon Nelson and Gary Koch, who wrote the statement in favor of the measure, rebutted Emmer’s claim.
“Parks vs. Healthcare is a false choice,” they wrote. “Strong communities have both, which is why levy rates will be modest, and ultimately accountable to taxpayers.”
At least three individual candidates for health care district commissioner publicly pledged to protect Parks.
And the official campaign organization for the ballot measure, Protect Vashon Healthcare, predicted an estimate of a levy rate of .40 to .45 cents per $1000 of assessed property value in their campaign materials — an amount that would not infringe on Parks’ funding.
The measure passed overwhelmingly, and the district was established, as was the board of commissioners governing it — a group of community-minded and qualified people, no doubt.
Then came COVID-19.
The Health Care District commissioners’ jobs were daunting even before the pandemic, but despite everything, they have now secured a provider, Sea Mar Community Health Centers, to take over the island’s health clinic.
But Sea Mar’s residence on Sunrise Ridge comes at a steep cost. And last month, the commissioners did what Emmer, in her opposition to the measure, had warned of — establishing a levy rate of $.58 cents per $1000 of the assessed value of island property, an amount which will indeed adversely impact the Vashon Park District.
Only one of the commissioners, Eric Pryne, voted no to the health care district’s proposed levy rate.
Following closely on the heels of the commissioners’ decision, the Vashon Island Fire and Rescue also raised its levy rate to its maximum, $1.50 per $1000 of accessed property value — an amount that will further cut into the Park District’s budget.
Pleas from Parks, an agency that operates much closer to the bone than the fire district, did not move either the health care or fire district commissioners from their decisions. The fire district basically shrugged, blaming the Health Care District for Parks’ problems.
Of course, it shouldn’t work like this. Voters also chose, in last year’s election, to support parks with dollars that have now, effectively, been claimed by the fire and hospital districts. It’s a horribly unfair and complex system of taxation, one that is barely understood by many people.
But what is completely understandable, at this point, are two raw political facts.
The Health Care District commissioners broke what seemed like a promise to voters. The Fire District commissioners then declined to even consider cutting corners to help close the gap for Parks. Many voters will no doubt remember both those things. Public attendance at both the Fire and Health Care District meetings might well increase, as islanders feel the need to watch more closely to make sure these districts’ leaders are wisely stewarding the tax dollars they insist they need.
Islanders will also remember the way the Health Care District’s decision was announced in a too-abrupt and chaotic way. We hope the commissioners are able to better explain, as time goes on, why they made the choice they did, and show us how they intend to regain the public’s trust. Their commentary in this week’s Beachcomber is a good step in that conversation with their constituents.
In the meantime, some way will have to be found to help prop up Parks’ budget, now slashed by $132,000 by the twin decisions of the health care and fire districts — amounting to a nine percent cut to Parks’ budget, which could well lead to layoffs in the department.
Strong communities do indeed have both healthcare and vibrant parks and recreational facilities. Moreover, they are linked. Parks contribute immeasurably to both the physical and mental health of islanders with its management of 530 acres and 48 properties utilized by thousands of locals. We need Point Robinson, the Village Green, our community pool, VES and Agren playing fields, Ober Park, Paradise Ridge Park and Burton Recreation Center. Can you imagine Vashon without Parks?
Fire Commissioner Brigette Schran-Brown was both kind and generous to volunteer, after her district’s decision not to lower its proposed levy rate, to help write grants for the park district. But Parks is not a charity. It’s the great outdoors, the heart and soul of our commons, and eighty percent of Vashon voters supported its funding with tax dollars in the last election.
“We’re all in this together” is one of the signature cliche sayings of the pandemic era. We only wish the decisions of the health care and fire districts would have more reflected that sentiment.