South Whidbey Parks district to seek levy hike on April ballot measure

South Whidbey Parks maintenance worker Larry Calbert and facilities and grounds supervisor Tom Fallon eye a line that represents a new planter around the 9/11 memorial tree at Community Park.  - Ben Watanabe / The Record
South Whidbey Parks maintenance worker Larry Calbert and facilities and grounds supervisor Tom Fallon eye a line that represents a new planter around the 9/11 memorial tree at Community Park.
— image credit: Ben Watanabe / The Record

Declining revenue, rising material costs and increasing responsibilities spurred the South Whidbey Parks & Recreation District to seek its first levy increase next month.

Voters from Freeland to Clinton will have their say about the 3-cent maintenance and operations levy-lift request — it’s been 15 cents since 1983 — on the April 22 ballot. In a presentation prepared by the parks staff, the increased levy amount would boost the district’s budget by $115,000. That money will help the district’s operations and will not go toward building new facilities like the discussed and once-rejected aquatic center or additional properties such as the county-owned Dave Mackie Park or Dan Porter Park.

“It is not for anything new,” said Parks Director Doug Coutts. “We are not adding anything, we are not taking on any new properties.”

“We’re taking care of our current responsibilities first before we look at anything else,” he later added.

At 18 cents per $1,000 of assessed value, the owner of a $300,000 property within the parks district boundary would pay $54 for the parks levy.

According to the district informational presentation, additional funds would allow the district to cover its reserve fund and cash on hand, and create a small capital projects fund. The reserve fund is the account that kicks in if a levy fails, and includes 25 percent of the year’s operating costs. Cash on hand helps the district operate through the first three months of every year until the next year’s levy payment is received by the parks district from the county. Coutts said the cash on hand was $20,000 below what was required by the parks commissioners this year. Remaining money would be put into a small capital projects fund.

“The 18 cents will allow us to replenish that by 2016,” Coutts said. “We will establish a capital projects fund to handle some of the smaller items, like if we have to replace a roof, or pavement overlays.”

Since 2009 when the district received its highest funding from the maintenance and operations levy, the district’s assets have increased and its revenue has plummeted. Today, the district manages more than 320 acres of public property at Community Park, the Sports Complex, Trustland Trails, and Deer, Lone and Goss lakes. The lakes, though owned by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, were taken over as managed properties by the parks district in 2010, as property values began to dip in Island County. The parks staff, composed of two maintenance employees and one facility and grounds supervisor — three people for 320 acres across the district — try to visit the lakes twice a week during the fall and winter. During spring and summer when the lakes see more use, the visits increase to tend to the grass, remove garbage and check bathrooms. Tending to the state-owned lakes did not come with a single penny of state funding for the South Whidbey Parks & Recreation District. Ben Watanabe / The Record | South Whidbey Parks maintenance employee Anna Williams breaks up the hard-packed soil around the 9/11 memorial tree at Community Park.

“When we took on the lakes, we didn’t know what the impact would be,” said Don Wood, the parks board chairman. “It’s not a lot, but it is an impact.”

Commissioners unanimously approved the 18-cent levy request in January for the April ballot. It will be the only item in the election on South Whidbey, and the parks district will have to pay for the cost of processing the 12,008 ballots, the amount of which was not known by the parks district or the Island County Elections Office.

Seeking the April vote was necessary so the district could put the levy on the ballot again in November if voters reject the increase.

The 3-cent increase was chosen because it would come close to restoring the district’s funding to what it was in 2009, Wood said.

“What we didn’t want to do was go for the 20 cents and not have a plan for the money,” he said.

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