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My Life as a Park District Commissioner

Today, the population is angry at politicians. Neither of the likely candidates for President is widely trusted, in some cases even by their supporters. In one respect, the Vashon Park District got a jump on the rest of the country. A little over two years ago, Islanders were very angry with the Park District, defeating an incumbent commissioner and narrowly re-electing another. Voters elected me at that time to an open seat. There were those who thought I was crazy to run. The upside to this controversy has been a surge in citizen participation. Board meetings were packed for a while. And in contrast to previous years or to many local island elections, all six commissioner seats up in the past two park district elections have featured at least two candidates.

I and the other current commissioners would like to build on that interest. A professional survey firm has helped us develop a survey that you will soon be receiving. You might not have the time to attend a park district meeting or even visit a Park District facility, but as an islander and most likely someone who pays property taxes, you have an interest in having our parks be efficiently run and reflective of community needs and and values. Please help us by filling it out and returning it.

I’m not going to claim that I and the other new commissioners have improved the operations of the park district. Every voter will have to decide that for him or herself. What is true is that I have come to realize anew what economists are always telling us: there is no such thing as a free lunch. If we want something--say better soccer fields or a year-round pool, for example, we have to give up something; the lunch is not free. The Park District revenues are determined by the tax rate as approved in a previous levy vote and the health of the local housing market. The commissioners cannot raise taxes except when the levy rate is determined. In last years’ vote on a four-year levy, which passed by the narrowest of margins, the tax rate was kept unchanged from the previous levy. Borrowing money is not a good option, not least because lenders are not eager to finance an organization whose solvency depends on the goodwill of the voters. Today, on balance, the Park District is repaying past borrowing.

To finance an expensive initiative such as the VES (Vashon Elementary School) fields means giving up something, in fact quite a bit since property values and, with them, property tax receipts, dropped dramatically in the wake of the Great Recession of 2007-09. The lunch was not only not free, it became much more expensive in terms of required tradeoffs in the past half dozen years. Moreover, the fields are expensive to maintain, particularly over the the span of several years.

Meanwhile, other Park District facilities are crying out for care. Pt. Robinson, which is a shared responsibility of the Keepers, the Coast Guard and the Park District, is the crown jewel of the system that we have to protect. Inspiration Point, mostly ignored by those too young to remember the once spectacular view, was fifty years ago, along with Pt. Robinson, the premier tourist attraction on the island. It too is a Park District responsibility although the view, or lack thereof, is a shared responsibility with private property owners.

The list could go on and on through almost two dozen Park District responsibilities, many of them such as Fisher Pond shared with other organizations such as the Land Trust. Who pays for the summer concerts in the Parks? That would be the Park District. Like the Farmers’ Market? No the Park District doesn’t grow the lettuce, but it does partner with the Vashon Island Grower’s Association to make the space available to those who do. Little known, but delightful Wingehaven? Another VPD property. Some parks, such as VES and Agren, emphasize active recreation such as soccer. Others, such as Lisabuela, lean toward more passive uses. In that respect, they reflect the diverse interests of islanders.

Even though not every islander uses every facility we are still in this together. Every property owner, whether they live on the island or not, helps support the parks, as do the legions of organized volunteers. As one islander told the commissioners, even those who are passive users may take a certain vicarious pleasure in activities such as fishing from the Tramp Harbor dock. Many Park District activities receive shared financial support from the users. The Paradise Ridge Equestrian Center and the Burton Skate Park, for example, have benefitted from generous contributions from users. The Park District uses Vashon School District land at VES, the Burton Skate Park and the pool rent-free. Even so, almost all Park District properties and activities lose money. As such, almost all the users get a subsidy financed by the share of the Island’s property tax that goes to the Vashon Park District. Soccer players, for example, receive much more in dollar terms services from the Park District than reflected in their fees. The same is true of pool users. Users at Jensen Point and elsewhere do not pay for the clean-up and mowed lawns that Vashon Park District maintenance provides. Users of Vashon School facilities other than the schools themselves pay a fee to the Park District that does not begin to compensate the Park District for its costs of running this program. In fact, the Park District pays the School District roughly ten percent of the Park District budget for this purpose.

By and large, those who are interested in using the Park District properties for active recreation are more vocal in their concerns and advocacy than those whose greatest pleasure in a VPD park might be the sunset at Lisabuela. But the elected commissioners and the talented staff of the Park District are here for all of you. We want to hear from you, maybe at the twice monthly meetings or perhaps if we run into you around town. But in any case, please fill out that survey.