Mercer Island parks department struggles to keep up with rising costs in open space management

According to the open space vegetation management biennium report, which the Mercer Island City Council reviewed at its July 17 meeting, the budget allocated for maintaining Mercer Island’s parkland will not be sufficient next year.

“Rapid inflation in restoration contracting and the stagnant capital budget have created a shortfall in services to the open space,” according to the report. “In 2017, the program will not be able to fully maintain the work areas previously established.”

To restore funding to a “maintenance-only” level, staff will first redirect savings on other parks capital projects before seeking additional funding from prior budget surpluses, if available. The city is also considering taking a levy to voters in 2018, which could include additional funding for the open space program.

A few factors contributed to what parks staff call a “troubling trend” of substantial increases in project costs. Unit costs for basic tasks, such as ivy ring creation and planting maintenance, increased between 2- and 11-fold, and “restoration contractors began to report that the low-bid system used by Mercer Island is a deterrent, as it can be more restrictive and onerous than time-and-materials contracts used by other agencies,” according to the report.

Between 2005 and 2010, funding for the open space program increased steadily, driven by the council’s interest in raising the level of service for all open spaces, as well as a voter-approved levy in 2008.

“These funding increases, paired with an advantageous bidding environment during the economic recession, greatly advanced restoration work in open space areas,” according to the report. “Since 2009, funding for the program has remained relatively level.”

Given that restoration costs are likely to continue on an upward trend, the open space program now faces decisions about how the limited funding can be used efficiently and effectively. If city funding remains relatively flat, or even rises to meet average wage‐based inflation, the gap between program funding and “maintenance‐only” restoration is likely to widen, according to the report.

Over the past two years, restoration work has been done by in-house staff, seasonal crew labor, restoration contractors and volunteers.

Restoration activities include invasive species removals, invasive tree and noxious weed treatment, tree ivy removal, native tree and shrub planting and watering of new plantings. Work spanned across 110 acres in 20 parks and open spaces, and about 6,800 new trees and shrubs were planted in 10 of those parks.

The priority for the 2017-2018 biennium is to maintain parkland that has already been enrolled in restoration, though due to the combination of increased restoration costs and budget reductions, not all areas in need of maintenance will receive restoration work, according to the report.

Staff will continue to prioritize maintenance on sites considered most sensitive and ecologically valuable. The program will not have adequate funds to initiate comprehensive invasive removal projects, and planting projects will likely be limited to volunteer efforts.

The Open Space Program will continue working with EarthCorps and Mountains to Sound Greenway to engage community volunteers in restoration and fostering relationships with individuals interested in more intensive forest stewardship.

Mayor Bruce Bassett asked if the city could place knotweed on a list of weeds that homeowners need to get rid of, to help eradicate the noxious plant. Open space staff is currently tracking 104 distinct populations of the weed on roadsides and in parks. Many populations have now been successfully controlled, while Mercer Island residents continue to report new sightings both on public and private land.

Councilmember Dan Grausz said that the council should restore the funding to maintenance levels, as it voted to do during its last budget process. The council expressed interest in revisiting the funding question at a future meeting or planning session.

For more, see