Parks bond capped at $12 million

J. Jacob Edel
Mercer Island Reporter

Members of the City Council have decided to ask voters to take out a $12-million, 20-year “mortgage” to fund numerous improvements at several Island parks.

During their summer planning session last Saturday, the Council compared its parks bond to taking out a mortgage while Councilmembers hashed out the total costs for the upcoming ballot measure the city plans to bring before Island voters this fall. The Council agreed the parks ballot would include an annual $1.1 million levy to fund operations and maintenance costs within Island parks and the $12-million, 20-year bond would pay for several capital improvement projects. The Council must finalize the list of capital projects during its two July meetings and approve a final resolution before Aug. 12, the deadline to file the measure with the county elections office. The Council plans to have a study session prior to its regular scheduled meeting on July 7 to discuss which recommended capital projects will be cut from a list devised by a stakeholders committee. During the second July meeting, the Council plans to approve a final list. Currently, there are several waterfront, ballfield and trail improvement projects considered.

The stakeholders committee, comprising numerous park user groups and athletic associations, had previously recommended that the Council seek a $14.5 million bond with the $1.1 million annual levy. With the Councils decision to cut the bond by $2.5 million, the city will have to drop some of the recommended capital projects. Councilmember Dan Grausz said the parks and ballfield vote provides Islanders with the chance to financially support one of the top attractions to the Island.

“The reality is, you have to fund police, fire and transportation,” Grausz said of government expenditures. “They are more important, but that doesn’t mean parks aren’t important. Parks rank right up there with education as what makes Mercer Island attractive. This is an opportunity to fix a lot of what needs to get fixed in terms of parks and recreation.”

The majority of the maintenance funds generated by the new levy would permanently replace the current Luther Burbank Park levy that Islanders approved about four years ago. It would also fund more forest restoration in Pioneer Park and some school field maintenance as well as scheduling.

As a result of picking the $12 million bond and $1.1 million levy, the Council agreed not to press Island taxpayers for more than a $100 increase in their property taxes.

Some Councilmembers concerned about voter fallout after money becomes part of the picture as the November vote approaches. Councilmember Mike Cero said he was concerned about the taxes that all government agencies would add next year to property owners and citizens. He presented data that he compiled and said the county and school district were raising property taxes as sewer rates from the city and county would be going up as well. He also said he recently learned that hourly babysitting rates at the Island’s community center were going up from $5 to $7.

“We [the city] — everybody — are really hitting the taxpayer and the citizen hard,” Cero said of recent levy approvals and utility rate increases. “Is this the right time and, if so, how much can the folks out there absorb?”

Cero also said with a struggling economy and rising gas prices, more and more residents may oppose a large tax increase. Deputy Mayor El Jahncke suggested that the Council find a way to limit the tax increase to $100 per $1 million of assessed home value to minimize the burden.

“The monthly payment is what drives Joe Six Pack,” Jahncke said. “It’s the same as with a car. Apply that here, to the annual payment and just as in those two arenas, it’s the monthly or yearly payment that counts. That’s how people interpret tax burden.”

Grausz and City Manager Rich Conrad reminded the Council that it was not them approving the tax increase, but the voters.

“The Council sets priorities and when there are not funds left over for this type of service, you ask voters to fund it with additional taxes,” Grausz said. “That’s what democracy is all about.”

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