Will a Parks District Measure—and Its ‘Forever Tax’—Go the Way of Prop 1?

When the City Council on Monday voted to put a measure on the August ballot that would create a Seattle Parks District with permanent taxing authority, some interesting voices spoke up in opposition. One of them was John Fox, the longtime head of the Seattle Displacement Coalition, which fights for affordable housing and social justice.

Fox, in other words, is not your typical anti-tax crusader, and on most matters he would probably agree very little with a conservative like Tim Eyman. He willingly concedes that the parks need money, and have an appalling backlog of maintenance projects.

But this, he insists, is not the way to raise the money. The problem? The parks district would be able to raise property taxes as it sees fit (up to 75 cents on $1,000 of assessed value, $300 on a $400,000 house) without requiring any new votes by the people.

“It’s a forever tax,” Fox says. “Once this is created, there’s no going back.”

In contrast, the public now votes on levies that last a specified period of time. A six-year levy, for example, is set to expire this year. That levy raised $24 million a year. The parks district proposal would raise double that amount to start, and potentially much more than that in future should the entity approach the maximum taxation allowed.

“The people who are hurt the most are the people at the bottom,” Fox argues. Instead of this “regressive” tax, Fox suggests that the city ought to be levying developers with impact fees to support the infrastructure costs associated with the current building boom.

City Councilmember Kshama Sawant, another fierce advocate for those at the bottom, takes a different view. She supports a district with taxing authority because parks are used particularly heavily by low-income people, she told The Seattle Times .

While that’s undoubtedly true, Fox’s antipathy to a scary-sounding, new taxing authority may say something about the current mood of Seattle’s generally tax-tolerant voters. Think Proposition 1, the transportation measure that carried a high price tag and little transparency, and which went down in defeat last week.

Fox is not the only unlikely opponent to the park district proposal. Michael Oxman is an arborist who spends his spare time restoring the natural areas of South Seattle’s Kubota Garden. Despite his love of the parks, he too objects to what he sees as a lack of accountability inherent in the parks district idea. He also notes that the city will in the next year be asking more of taxpayers than ever, with a universal pre-K levy likely to be on the ballot in November.

It kills him to oppose a parks measure, Oxman says, but the city “has given us no choice.”

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