Zoo to-do

New parks district: scam or boon?

Zoo politics usually equals a call for more money dressed up by plenty of cute critters. In Tacoma, campaigners donned tiger ears to help pass this month's $35 million bond; the 1985 King County zoo bonds were approved after a campaign focusing on the inadequacies of the elephant house.

But changes spawned far from the hippo habitat, in everyone's favorite menagerie—the state Legislature—could bring big changes for Seattle's Woodland Park Zoo, aquarium, and other parks facilities. The legislation approved last week could lead to the formation of a Metropolitan Parks District in Seattle. Supporters say the district will provide a permanent funding source and much-needed autonomy for the zoo and aquarium; opponents charge its part of a larger plot to privatize the city's parks.

Oh, one more thing—Seattle Metro Parks could raise your taxes. If a majority of city voters approve the formation of the new parks district, the Seattle City Council could assess an additional property tax of up to 50 cents per $1,000 of assessed home value; about $100 annually for the owner of a $200,000 home. The new tax would net about $22 million per year.

Zoo director David Towne says privatizing the zoo would bring in the dough from the private sector as well. The Zoo Society, a nonprofit foundation, now contributes about $3 million to the zoo's annual budget, compared to about $11 million from city coffers. However, convincing corporations, foundations, and well-heeled citizens to contribute to a government-run facility is a hard sell, Towne explains. "If they're going to lay out sizable sums of money or go out and raise money, they feel they should have some say in how the money is used."

The Seattle Aquarium, whose supporters favor a $126.7 million reconstruction, is also slated to be run privately while getting a cut of the Metro Parks take. And there's no shortage of other programs lining up at the trough. Mayor Paul Schell suggests that renovations at Sand Point's Magnuson Park could benefit; City Council member Nick Licata hopes some money will be left to buy open-space properties.

Licata has functioned as the City Hall point man for Metro Parks critics, meeting with local labor leaders and concerned citizens who fear the legislation is the first step in a privatization of city parks.

Citizens have already beaten back efforts to transfer the management of Westlake Park to downtown merchants and to allow a seasonal theater/cabaret to pitch its tent on the shores of Green Lake, notes activist Jorgan Bader. He argues that a Metro Parks District would move the operation of some key city parks directly into the hands of politicians, usurping the powers of the parks superintendent as mandated in the city charter. He cites the example of the Seattle Center, which now includes private buildings constructed on public land, and is the site of several events in which citizens are charged an admission fee just to walk the center grounds. "What you've seen is a parceling out of Seattle Center—bit by bit," he says. "Our position is that will happen to the park system."

Bader says there is evidence that the Metro Parks District is about more than just new taxes. State Sen. Jim Horn (RMercer Island) tried unsuccessfully to grant Seattle the taxing authority it wants without forming a Metro Parks District. Horn sponsored a tax-only bill that was ignored by Seattle policymakers and died in committee.

Supporters insist there is no hidden agenda to privatize city parklands. "Parks are the jewel of our city," says Clifford Traisman, director of the city's Office for Intergovernmental Relations. "There is absolutely no support for using this bill to give away property. It's a pro-parks, pro-open space, pro-zoo funding mechanism."

Traisman and other district supporters note that, because a Seattle Metro Parks District would be controlled by the City Council and mayor, there would be no loss of accountability to voters.

Licata argues that many of the concerns of critics have been addressed in amendments to the original bill. In addition, Licata pledged to work to maintain the current levels of city parks funding (so the Metro Parks District's taxes would represent an increase in total funding). He also wants to pry loose some King County tax dollars for the zoo and aquarium, as they both serve residents of the entire region, not just city dwellers.

The zoo's Towne says that officials considered seeking a King County Parks District, but nixed the idea for two reasons: It would have to be run by a separate elected body (not Seattle's mayor and council, as in the current proposal), and the county lacks the available tax base.

Towne is confident additional regional funding will be found. "The county is now looking at the zoo as a regional facility, and it could be eligible for $3 million a year," he notes.

Private operation of the zoo and aquarium would also terminate the public employee status of their workforce. Bader says the transfer could hurt employee benefits and deny workers important protections. Bader says he is opposed to any mechanism that would "let a private organization hire, fire, or discipline public employees."

Seattle citizens will get the final say in this argument—a vote on forming the district could be held as soon as this November. Although Licata cautions against rushing such a complex topic to the voters, Schell has already identified the Metro Parks vote as one of his 1999 goals.

Bring on the baby animals.

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