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City set to end funding for parks program, taxing district preps for ballot

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The University Place City Council has voted to end a $400,000 subsidy from the city’s general fund to the city’s Parks and Recreation program as a step to stem its budget troubles.

The council directed city budget drafters to develop a budget for 2017-2018 that would end parks program funding but continue to repair and maintain the 17 parks and facilities themselves, at a cost of about $600,000.

“Due to a dramatic deterioration in city financial resources starting in 2009, the city’s 2010 budget substantially reduced Recreation staffing and programs. Economic conditions have not improved measurably,” according to a staff report on the issue. “After an extensive, multi-year evaluation of alternatives, given the city’s financial condition and the need to make adjustments to achieve a balanced budget council directed staff to prepare a resolution that would eliminate the city’s general fund subsidy to the Recreation Department beginning in 2017.”

The underlying issue is that property taxes gathered within the city go almost exclusively to public safety costs, which leaves sales taxes and one-time funding sources to fund the rest of the city services. The city’s $14 million general fund is also further divided by the requirement to pay down the city’s bond debt, about $3 million a year, and has a projected shortfall of $1 million by 2020 if cuts aren’t made.

The council made the decision to end the funding of parks programs sooner rather than later as a way to provide as much time as possible for parks users to find alternatives. The top alternative that is already in the works is the formation of a junior taxing district that would fund parks programs through property taxes as a separate agency, University Place Metropolitan Parks District, that would fund parks outside of the city’s general fund the same way Tacoma residents fund their parks. A vote would likely be held in April.

That effort has an unknown future, making the council’s vote to end recreational funding a tough one. Council member Ken Grassi, who was the lone vote against the idea of ending parks funding, actually supported the idea of voters forming a parks district. He just wanted the city to pay more toward parks than just maintaining them or offer a match to whatever funds a district collected.

“This is one of those super, super hard decisions,” he said. “I think it is a great idea and I think it is a direction that the city needs to go. I just can’t come to grips with it.”

Other council members shared the grim decision they were facing but admitted that more cuts and other tough decisions are going to have to be made to have a balanced budget.

“It’s a sad decision to be making,” Councilmember Steve Worthington said, noting that the city had to cut two police positions, and he doesn’t want to the city to cut more or continue to use one-time revenues to fund on-going expenses. “I see no other alternative.”

Councilmember Kent Keel echoed those thoughts. The city is simply spending more than it is taking in through taxes, and it has been for years.

“I know how important parks are to this community. But for me, it comes down to very simple math,” he said, noting that continuing to overspend and hope unbudgeted money comes in to cover expenses is unsustainable and irresponsible. “That is the very definition of what is wrong with government.”  

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