Pssst, cities: Want to take over a park that's run by King County?
Seattle Times Eastside bureau
County officials will meet today with their city counterparts to talk about park transfers.
Cities can be an attractive landlord, with their local stewardship, high maintenance standards and parks budgets that are usually more nourished than the county's.
Cities, however, are often reluctant to rescue parks for a single reason: money.
Parks require regular upkeep. Years without proper funding have left many county facilities with costly maintenance "debts." And cities are usually required to take them as part of larger annexations of neighborhoods that may require investments in new sewer mains or police coverage. And all this comes at a time of belt-cinching at city halls around the county.
A projected $50 million budget shortfall in the county budget led to mothballing of 44 parks this winter. Last month, County Executive Ron Sims said 20 would remain unmaintained, and he announced other cuts to the parks budget.
Long before the budget crisis, the county planned to get out of the parks business where possible. As new cities incorporate and others expand, the county hands off many local responsibilities such as parks and fire coverage. For example, Shoreline received 23 parks from the county when it incorporated in 1995.
Overall, about 50 of 183 county parks lie within areas that cities are expected to annex. Some 10 other county parks are within the borders of established cities.
Craig Larsen, manager of King County Parks and Recreation, said he hoped the 50 would be transferred to cities within five years, but he acknowledged that time frame was "speculative."
"We really believe that most of these things are local services," Larsen said. "... We've been pursuing these transfers for some years, but clearly the pressure's on" now to transfer them.
The complex calculus a city undergoes before accepting a park is illustrated by negotiations under way with Mercer Island, Tukwila and Kirkland. All three parks under consideration lie within city boundaries.
On Mercer Island, the county wants to give the city the 72-acre Luther Burbank Park, which has an amphitheater and 4,000 feet of shoreline on the island's northeast corner. The City Council has agreed it wants to accept the park.
But to get Burbank up to Mercer Island's park standards, annual maintenance would cost $440,000, or almost double what is now spent by the county, according to the city. The park also needs up to $3 million in repairs to erase a backlog of deferred maintenance, of which King County might pay some.
Kirkland faces a similar situation with the county-owned Juanita Beach Park, which would require $300,000 annually for upkeep and up to $5 million in other fixes, according to Michael Cogle, parks planning manager for the city.
"If you take it over, people are going to want to see improvements," Cogle said. "You've got to take it over with a commitment to doing a good job. And right now the timing is not good for cities to do that."
Mercer Island could acquire Luther Burbank Park and initially operate it by using part of the city's $6.4 million surplus, said City Manager Rich Conrad. But the city might need to consider opening a restaurant or a marina at the park to defray costs and may consider a property-tax increase to fund future maintenance, Conrad said.
Further complicating the city's plans is the county's demand to bundle the island's county-run pool in any deal. Although the pool was paid for with regional Forward Thrust bonds in the 1970s, it is mostly used by Mercer Islanders. The pool costs the county $200,000 to operate.
Tukwila, on the other hand, is interested in taking ownership of a county-run pool that is much used by residents but has hesitated at the other part of the package: Fort Dent Park, a 54-acre regional attraction with a soccer stadium, a cricket pitch and softball diamonds.
Less than 3 percent of booked events at Fort Dent are sponsored by the city of Tukwila, said City Manager John McFarland.. Though the park charges use fees, the gap between income and expenditures is $400,000 annually, he said. The pool is used much more by Tukwila residents but is also a money-loser.
"It's one of those gifts that we're not so certain we can afford to accept," he said.
Sometimes the negotiations can lead to horse-trading. Now included in the negotiations is Tukwila's half-ownership of the South Park Bridge, which crosses the Duwamish River near the former Boeing headquarters. Because the bridge is little used by city traffic, Tukwila would like to hand over its ownership and responsibilities to the county.
Usually, the county does not transfer a park to a city unless it is annexed as part of the surrounding neighborhood. Neighborhoods, however, frequently need improvements to roads and other infrastructure, to get them up to city standards.
"The transfer of a park site is always linked to another issue," said Patrick Foran, director of Parks and Community Services for Bellevue. "The city has to weigh the cost benefit of taking on the annexation of that area and how it relates to the park."
That dilemma is faced by Kirkland. Eight of 20 county parks announced for closure are within areas the city one day plans to annex. If a city tries to acquire a county park but not the neighborhood around it, still other problems can arise. Asking city residents to pay to maintain parks outside the city while those who live closer to the parks and use them more pay nothing raises fairness issues, Cogle said.
In Bellevue, where the city has talked with the county for years about taking ownership of Eastgate Park and building a community center there, some neighbors complained they were left out of the planning because they aren't city residents yet.
Parks acquisition by cities could be made still more complicated and expensive by a state Supreme Court ruling earlier this month. The court said cities that want to annex land will have to hold a vote and get permission from voters in the annexation area, not just the largest property owners.
The Metropolitan Parks Task Force, created by Sims, will begin meeting next week to brainstorm proposals to keep parks operating.
Parks directors say they will be listening with interest — and trying to keep their eyes on the most important issue.
"The message I've been trying to say all along is, 'Who cares who runs it? Let's just keep it running,' " said Bruce Fletcher, Tukwila director of parks and recreation.