Upcoming parks bond and levy debated | Voters question need for more money, supporters state need to preserve and improve parks, fields

Islanders talked dollars and sense at a debate about the prudence of the parks bond and levy on the Nov. 4 ballot. Some suggested that the city live within its present budget, while others argued that additional funds are essential to preserve and improve key Island assets.

About two dozen Islanders attended the event hosted by Friends of Luther Burbank Park last Thursday evening at the library. Community activists Ira Appelman and Marty Gale argued in favor of rejecting the two measures, which would fund $900,000 of operating costs for 15 years — including the replacement of the current Luther Burbank Park levy — and add $12 million in park improvements over the next 20 years.

Appelman urged Islanders to vote no, as he criticized the official resolution being too vague. He also said the resolution would, legally, allow future City Councils to break from the projects approved by voters.

“This creates a slush fund to be spent as the City Council pleases,” Appelman said. “The resolution language is clear that this and future Councils can do anything they want. The decisions are at the discretion of the Council.”

Councilmember Dan Grausz spoke in support of the measure. He told the audience that the City Council has a good record of promoting better parks and would not use the money to ruin what Islanders enjoy today.

“Since I’ve been on this Council, we’ve added open space, preserved Pioneer Park and acquired Luther Burbank,” Grausz said. “The notion that somehow we are going to build a ballfield in Luther Burbank or a golf course in Pioneer Park just doesn’t walk. That only creates fear.”

Dan Taylor, the president of the Mercer Island Lacrosse Club, also supported the measures. He noted that the city promised to spend 53 percent of the $12 million in bonds for projects at Luther Burbank, such as continued shoreline and wetland restoration, 30 percent in improving current ballfields and to extend or create trails.

If approved, the bond will also help fund renovations at Mary Wayte Pool and repair Island swimming beaches. All of the $4 million to be spent on ballfields is planned to go toward upgrades at existing facilities at Island Crest Park and the South Mercer Playfields.

“This is not about putting in new fields at Luther Burbank, where we wouldn’t even think about putting a field.” Taylor said. “It’s just improving what we have.”

A study completed in late 2007 determined that the Island contains enough fields in number but that inadequate or poor conditions reduced the play-ability of many — leaving the city with a shortage of available fields.

Appelman and Gale also argued that the city already has the funds needed for park improvements and does not need to ask taxpayers for additional money. Appelman reminded the audience that the City Council funded a new surface, track and lighting at the South Mercer Playfields just last year. The city is also currently spending $1.3 million to fix the off-leash area and restore the shoreline at Luther Burbank. Appelman said the city should pay for the proposed improvements on the ballot without asking for more tax dollars.

“They [the Council] always say they don’t have that much money, but they have money in the capital reserve fund right now,” Appelman said.

Councilmember Grausz acknowledged the city’s ability to under-spend so that it had a surplus every year. However, he said the Council will have to allocate any upcoming surpluses to higher priorities than parks. He also explained to the audience that state law prevents the city from raising property taxes more than 1 percent each year while inflation, employment salaries and fuel costs all rise at a faster rate.

“There is no pot of money sitting at City Hall,” Grausz said. “Those surpluses are what’s going to be used for our new 9-1-1 system, the sewer lake line or the emergency well. Those are what the surplus goes for.”

The opponents and supporters both recognized the economic reality unfolding before the nation and world today. With credit markets failing, an audience member asked if the bonds could even be sold. Grausz replied that the city has an excellent credit rating and the Council would only sell the bonds with an interest rate comparable to the estimated 5.5 percent. Plus, taxes would not be collected until debt service began on the sold bonds, whether that took three months, six months or a year.

The proposal would bring $100 net increase for a home valued at $1 million. Taylor said that he has three children in college, another in high school, and recently watched the value of his investments in the stock market tumble. Despite that, he said, the fragile nature of the Island’s parks calls for the improvements.

“It’s a tough time to do it, but the timing of the bonds is going to be staggered out,” Taylor said. “We’ll start with a little investment and with the master plan for Luther Burbank, we will be able to give real value to the majority of the constituency.”

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