Urban Politics #58: Metropolitan Park District (MPD)


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By City Councilmember Nick Licata.

Urban Politics (UP) blends my insights and information on current public policy developments and personal experiences with the intent of helping citizens shape Seattle’s future.

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CONTENTS:

  • Why Should You Know About An MPD
  • What Is An MPD?
  • MPD Legislative History
  • What Critics Said About The MPD
  • MPD Status Now
  • Necessary Conditions For Supporting An MPD

Why Should You Know About An MPD

This legislative session has seen a flurry of lobbying activity in Olympia around changes being made to Metropolitan Park Districts. The City and the Zoo Society are advocating for these changes to provide for more funding opportunities for the Zoo, possibly the Aquarium, and city parks.

However, park and open space advocates are also concerned that an MPD could lead to the privatization of public parks. While an MPD being used in this manner may be real, this concern is applicable to the MPD law that has been in existence for the past 90 years, so it is not any more relevant today than it has been in the past.

I’ve had a number of meetings with park advocates and managed to have a dozen changes made to the current law to address their concerns. I believe that an MPD could provide a much-needed source of revenue for our parks if it was instituted with certain conditions, which I explain at the end of this Urban Politics. With the changes described immediately below, I believe the amended MPD law provides for more public involvement and public control of parks than they have in the past.

Following is a history of the legislation, an outline of citizen concerns, and a description of how an MPD could operate. I encourage you to read over the material and reach your own conclusions.

What is an MPD?

A Metropolitan Park District is a “junior taxing district” whose levy authority, up to 50 cents per $1,000 of assessed value, is limited by the levies imposed by the City and the County. There is an overall cap on the dollar amount that these bodies can levy.

Junior taxing districts, like an MPD, can only collect their levy from the amount left under the cap when the other two bodies do not reach it. But if the gap narrows, then the MPD’s budget could be reduced if there was not an adequate margin in the gap to meet the levy needs for all three jurisdictions. Since the MPD is “junior” to the other two bodies, and it must reduce its revenue first. This arrangement protects existing levies, such as the Affordable Housing and Emergency Medical Services levies from being reduced by an MPD levy.

Although the state legislative authority for creating MPD’s has been on the books for some time, only Tacoma currently has one and it runs the Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium and a variety of parks and golf courses in Tacoma. It is also in trouble partly because Pierce County is increasing its levy, thereby cutting the revenues of Tacoma’s MPD. Consequently, Tacoma’s MPD is tightening its budget, by making a number of budget cuts such as reducing its park police and eliminating its cost-of-living raises for its employees.

MPD Legislative History

For the 4 years prior to this year, the City had been down in Olympia trying to get the levy authority for the MPD to include transit improvements. Essentially this redirected a taxing source intended for parks to go to roads. This approach was the same strategy used in 1997 when the City backed a ballot issue to levy a property tax to fix the roads. I was opposed to that ballot issue because I believe that taxes that go for road improvements should be tied to the users of those roads as closely as possible, that is gas and parking taxes are more appropriate than property taxes.

The Zoo Society in ’97 filed a bill allowing Seattle to have its City Council and Mayor serve as the board of its Metropolitan Park District. This option is referred to as an ex-officio board as opposed to a separately elected board. This proposal flowed from the recommendations made by a Regional Zoo Commission that had representation from legislators, businesses, labor and community leaders to find a stable-funding source for the Zoo.

The Zoo Commission believed that MPD funding would stabilize the admission fees keeping the Zoo accessible to families. A reliable public source of operating funds through an MPD could also reduce the number of fundraising events at the Zoo, as they tend to impact the surrounding neighborhoods’ parking.

However, Mayor Rice at that time made it known that the City still wanted the MPD levy funds to go for pot holes so the Zoo Society did not pursue the matter.

In 1998, the City was neutral on the Zoo’s efforts to change the MPD laws. After the property tax for streets ballot measure was defeated, the City began looking at local gas tax options instead of property taxes to fix our roads. The Zoo sponsored MPD amendments passed unanimously in the House during that session but failed in the Senate.

This year the City decided to join the Zoo’s efforts, finally recognizing that it might fund as much as $24 million for needed improvements at the Zoo and city parks. Although the changes offered by the Zoo society at the beginning of the session were the same as back in 1997, other amendments to the bill have now been made to address the concerns of park advocates.

What Critics Said About The MPD

There have been a number of criticisms leveled at a Metropolitan Park District. From what I can tell, just about all of the criticisms were applicable to the existing MPD law on the books, with the exception of the new proposed change to allow an MPD board to be the same as Seattle’s City Council and Mayor. Once this change began gathering support in Olympia, critics felt that the likelihood of Seattle voting for an MPD was greater and thus they became concerned with the other potential problems with an MPD.

Below is a description of criticisms and how they relate to the current law or the proposed changes. It is not meant to be an exhausted list of concerns but I think it identifies the major ones.

* Independent Board versus Ex-Officio Board

As an ex-officio body, the City Council and Mayor serve as the board for the MPD. This change would avoid creating a new bureaucracy and thus lower overhead operating costs. It would also avoid having city parks divided between MPD managed properties and City managed ones. Instead, MPD levy funds could be treated as a revenue source for maintaining city parks.

Supporters of an independently elected board argue that it would provide more direct accountability to the public. The logic being that if an elected representative is only responsible for management of public parks, then their track record can be more easily assessed than an elected official who has multiple responsibilities.

It makes sense at first, but this accountability has to be weighed against other factors. For instance, would more independently elected boards, lead to less efficiency in providing public services. We separately elect our School Board, but we do not elect a separate governing body over City Light, which actually has a larger budget and more employees than the Parks Department. Additional independently elected bodies could fracture policymaking among various competing bodies and have them vying for the same public revenue base.

Also, organized labor is strongly opposed to a separately elected MPD board. They would prefer to have it be ex-officio, because they believe the City Council would be more accountable and it would also allow public employees to remain under one overarching management system and retain one bargaining unit per union.

* An MPD could never be dissolved.

The MPD can be dissolved when 10% of the voters in the last mayoral election ask for a public vote. This is the same number of signatures needed for filing an initiative.

Also, the MPD is not automatically created by the changes made in the state MPD laws. There still must be a vote of the people to create and define the powers of the MPD. A Seattle MPD could be either independently elected or ex- officio.

Once the powers of the MPD are defined in the ballot, they cannot be changed by the City Council unless there is another vote of the public to change them. For example if the MPD is limited to only contracting out to a non-profit for operating the Zoo, then it could not do so for any other park or public facility.

* An MPD is not subject to Initiative & Referendum

State law did not originally extend the Initiative & Referendum process to MPDs. However, upon the request of park advocates the City submitted new amendments to add them to the MPD legislation. They are now included in the legislation and if it passes the powers of initiative and referendum will be exercised over an MPD in the same manner and with the same effect as Seattle’s initiative and referendum process.

* An MPD could privatize public parks

Critics fear that an MPD could privatize public parks through long term leases with non-profit entities. An MPD could contract with a non-profit or other public agencies for existing parks operations, maintenance and construction, but not without explicit prior approval from the City Council and Mayor.

In addition, a public process including notice and a public hearing is required before any overall management contract between the MPD and a non- profit is approved. The length of such contracts is limited to 30 years. In absence of such a contract, the MPD must contract with the City for management of its property should it acquire any.

Private, for-profit agencies are explicitly prohibited from holding a contract for overall management and operation of any City parks and recreation facilities. Although franchises/concessions could be operated/managed by for- profits as is currently allowed under city law (established by Initiative 42) on parkland. The provisions of Initiative 42 would not be altered by the proposed MPD changes.

Language was added so that a MPD shall never become the owner of a park that was owned by Seattle, hence it could not own City park and recreation facilities. If the MPD acquires property it is obligated to give the City first option to receive that property as a gift should the MPD seek to dispose of the land.

Supporters of an MPD argue that Seattle’s intent is to limit the MPD to assisting the Zoo, and perhaps the Aquarium, and not managing any other parks, properties or facilities. This language can be specified in a ballot and could only be changed by going back to the voters.

A management contract with the Zoo Society, could for example provide a clearer mechanism for achieving public “accountability” which at times now appears unclear because the Zoo and Aquarium already operate as distinct entities within the overall Parks structure. Their governance is already de- facto shared between Parks personnel and Zoo/Aquarium Society leaders. The MPD would formalize these arrangements and open them up to public scrutiny.

* The powers of an MPD are too broad.

The state statute allows an MPD to engage in a wide variety of activities. These powers have apparently always been implied, so the State code revisers consolidated and clarified the list of facilities for which an MPD is currently being applied to or could be applied to. The list is too long for my comfort level, but this was a decision made by the State not Seattle. And since it is a state law, it would seem that other cities have a stake in wanting to preserve the law’s original intent as well.

* MPD employees would not be in the city retirement plan.

Language was added to allow City employees to remain in the city’s retirement system, though they may report to a non-profit organization with which the MPD has contracted. The MPD may also create its own civil service commission.

MPD Status Now

MPD bills SB5268 and HB1189 have passed out of their respective committees. Next they will go the Rules Committee of each house and then head to the floor for a vote in each house. Changes are still being made, although they appear to be minor or proposed by and relevant only to other cities.

If the MPD law is eventually amended, nothing will happen until the Seattle City Council decides to place a proposed MPD on the ballot. Neither the Mayor nor the City Council has any proposals pending. I firmly believe that a thorough citizen involvement process would be absolutely necessary before any proposal could be placed on the ballot.

Necessary Conditions For Supporting An MPD

Whether the MPD is modified or not this legislative session, I think it is important to identify a solid revenue stream for parks in the future. We can talk endlessly about how the City should be properly maintaining our parks. Political reality, however, has shown that they still do not rise to the top of the city’s agenda when competing with other budget items like providing police and fire services or meeting transit and housing needs.

For this reason, I see an MPD offering a feasible funding solution. It may not be perfect, but it is probably the best tool available at this time. If the MPD is amended, a proposal to form one is likely to be placed on the ballot some time in the future. Although, I tend to believe, along with some other City Council Members, that an MPD ballot measure may have to wait until the fall of next year.

Most importantly it must be acceptable to the citizens and unless it provides the following four protections, I see it failing that challenge.

1) Limit MPD Management to the Zoo and the Aquarium

The City should limit the MPD management to just the Zoo and the Aquarium. There has to be a clear understanding that the MPD is not to contract with non-profits or other public agencies for any other public facility or park.

2) Commitment for Continued Support of Park Funding

There would need to be a “maintenance of effort provision” in establishing an MPD so that the MPD revenue would not displace City funding going to the Parks Department. The language could specify that the City’s level of financial support be adjusted for inflation or it could be a percentage of the general fund in the city budget.

3) Regional Funding for Regional Facilities

There must be a County revenue stream to the Zoo and Aquarium. Establishing an MPD without this participation could further shift the cost burden onto Seattle residents for facilities that are primarily used by non-residents. And a County commitment must be ongoing: when it ceases, the City’s support should revert back to its current ratio with the County’s.

4) Citizen Oversight on MPD Contracts with Non-Profits

There must be public involvement in the negotiation of the management contracts between the MPD and the Zoo and Aquarium before a ballot measure is presented to the voters. Contracts should include a periodic public review, which holds the non-profits accountable. There also needs to be a public mechanism for dispute resolution during the term of these contracts.

Keep in touch…

 

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