Bellingham voters may be asked for more parks, trails money

What is unofficially being called Cordata Community Park, in Bellingham, Friday, May 20, 2016, is one of the properties acquired by the city of Bellingham that would be developed into a park if voters approve Greenways IV in November.
What is unofficially being called Cordata Community Park, in Bellingham, Friday, May 20, 2016, is one of the properties acquired by the city of Bellingham that would be developed into a park if voters approve Greenways IV in November. pdwyer@bhamherald.com

The City Council is moving toward letting Bellingham voters once again decide whether to tax themselves to pay for parks, trails and other green spaces.

The measure will go before voters Nov. 8, if the council gives it the go-ahead at its June 6 meeting.

That would mark the fourth time Greenways, which is a property tax levy, has gone before voters since 1990.

Voters have passed each previous levy request.

Why might Greenways go before voters again?

Because the current version, Greenways III, ends in December. Voters approved it in 2006 by nearly 58 percent.

The next one to go before voters would be called Greenways IV.

What about a new parks taxing district?

Facing projected shortfalls in the city budget in the coming years, the council and Mayor Kelli Linville also had talked about possibly putting before voters a metropolitan park district, which is a taxing district for parks. As currently envisioned, such a property tax for green spaces wouldn’t expire, unlike Greenways.

That idea seems to have been shelved for now because some council members worried there wasn’t enough time to flesh out the details and educate voters citywide before the November election; they didn’t want to let Greenways, which is familiar to voters, lapse in the meantime; or they liked the current proposal.

Council members also said they wanted to be sensitive to the fact that voters may soon be asked to approve levies to pay for emergency medical services countywide as well as transportation for Bellingham schools. Also out there still is the cost of a new county jail. The levy amount for Greenways is lower than what was being floated for the metropolitan park district.

Doesn’t Bellingham already have a park district?

A metropolitan park district does exist in part of Bellingham.

Called the Chuckanut Community Forest Park District, it was created in February 2013 by voters in roughly southwest Bellingham. They decided to tax themselves for 10 years to generate about $3.2 million to help pay for the city’s purchase of Chuckanut Ridge and to save the wooded area from being turned into housing.

What would the next Greenways cost residents?

Up to 50 cents per $1,000 of assessed value for seven years, if approved by voters. (Seven years also would be the time when the Chuckanut Community Forest Park District is expected to sunset.)

The owner of a $300,000 house would pay up to $150 annually for Greenways IV.

The levy would bring in $4.5 million in its first year.

How does this Greenways proposal differ from previous versions?

It starts at a lower rate. The previous levies were for up to 57 cents per $1,000 of assessed value.

It’s not as long as the previous two levies, which ran for 10 years.

And for the first time, more money will go to developing land than buying it.

“There are substantial changes. In our view, they’re responsive to the needs of the city,” said Seth Fleetwood, chairman of the Greenways IV Levy Campaign Committee.

Here’s how the money would be spent:

▪ 42 percent, which is the biggest chunk, for park development, trail building and restoration.

▪ 33 percent to buy land for parks, trails and connections between the two.

▪ 25 percent for maintenance and operations for Greenways and other city-owned park land.

Compare that to the current Greenways, which set aside 60 percent for acquisition and 31 percent for development.

The change recognizes the need to develop and care for the Greenways the city already has, which has been a challenge. Adding other city-owned park land to maintenance and operations also would help officials as they grapple with the city’s budget hole.

A bigger chunk going to development also should make residents in north Bellingham happy. Two parcels of land have been bought off Cordata Parkway for parks in an underserved area, but neither has been developed.

City Council member Michael Lilliquist liked what he heard.

“It’s smarter. It’s slightly smaller. It’s refocused on current needs,” he said in April during one of the City Council sessions when members were hearing about Greenways IV.

“We’ve gotten halfway to our promise,” Lilliquist said of the Cordata parkland awaiting development. “I think it actually delivers the final element of the promise.”

Kie Relyea: 360-715-2234, @kierelyea