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By guest columnist Bill Geyer. See short bio at end of article.
The February 12 Special Election will ask south Bellingham voters to approve or disapprove creation of a new taxing district. This election is premature. If this district is approved, it will impose new property taxes on a few of us to pay a City loan that is not due for almost 5 years.
Why is there a loan?
In 2011, then-Mayor Pike and the City Council purchased 82 acres (Chuckanut Ridge) for $8,200,000 with $4,500,000 from Greenways III funds, $500,000 from park impact fees and a $3,200,000 loan borrowed from the Greenways Endowment. Voters approved the Greenways Endowment in 2006, not to be spent, but to generate future income for park maintenance citywide. The $3,200,000 loan must be repaid by December 31, 2017, almost five years from today, plenty of time to consider other options.
Some activists favor quickly creating a new taxing district, a Metropolitan Parks District (MPD) to pay off the City’s loan with increased property taxes within the district. Voters need to understand the consequences before taking such a drastic step.
What is the MPD per State law (RCW 35.61)?
1. An independent, separate unit of government. For the last 40 years, Bellingham has operated according to our voter-approved City Charter as a full service city for all. Carving a small area into a special taxing district that duplicates existing City parks services is not efficient. Voters should not create competing, overlapping local government.
2. Run by five paid parks commissioners. Only voters in Edgemoor, Fairhaven, South Hill, Happy Valley and South neighborhoods elect the five commissioners, each paid up to $8,640 per year. (See map below). All Bellingham voters elect the Mayor and Council making them accountable to all voters, not a select few. Parks decisions are too important to be left to a small, special interest group.
3. Commissioners can tax property up to $0.75 / $1,000 valuation within the district without a further vote of the people. Unlike school bond levies approved by the voters for a specific period of time, the new parks tax is set by a majority vote of the parks commissioners for as long as they want. Three commissioners could increase your taxes for a long time. Most governments charge their maximum legal tax rate. Would a parks district be different? At these rates, your annual property taxes will increases by $187.50 on a $250,000 home (more than $1,800 in just ten years); $262.50 on a $350,000 home; and $337.50 on a $450,000 home. Renters would not escape the tax as landlords pass property taxes on to their tenants.
4. Own and operate parks. Bellingham residents created a great parks system. Why create a competing system? Citywide support unified voters to approve three Greenways levies. This Special Election by a small, special interest group undermines our unity placing future Greenways at risk.
5. Condemn private property. Commissioners have the power to condemn private property for parks, parkways, roads or moorage inside AND outside the district boundaries. District taxpayers pay the condemnation costs. Do south Bellingham voters want this power in the hands of a few special taxing district commissioners?
Are there better financial options to pay off the $3,200,000 loan? Yes, such as:
Keep the site as a park, but sell the development rights to be built elsewhere in the City;
Keep ¾ of the site as a park, sell the remainder for a modest number of new houses;
Refinance the loan into the next Greenways levy for all voters to decide;
Sell or lease other City property;
Raise funds with a private capital campaign;
Lease the high elevations on the site for communication towers;
And many others you can suggest.
All south Bellingham voters should VOTE NO on Proposition 1.
Once defeated, the Mayor and City Council should convene Bellingham residents experienced in appraisals, property management, finance, and neighborhood planning to create viable options. Our residents have great talents that solved many past issues. Our Greenways legacy is one example. The current election ignores our greatest asset – our ability to work together. We should honor our Greenways legacy for citywide solutions and not separate south neighborhoods for special treatment as a special taxing district. For good government, please tell your friends and neighbors in south Bellingham to VOTE NO on Proposition 1.
Bill Geyer, a 28-year South Hill resident, is a certified professional planner. He serves as the Chairman of Protect Bellingham Parks, the committee devoted to defeating Prop 1 and advocating for realistic financial solutions to repay the City’s $3,200,000 loan to the Greenways Endowment Fund.