Budget Crank: Juarez vs. Bike Lanes, Golf vs. Affordable Housing, and Climate Goals vs. Convenience

Mayor Jenny Durkan calibrated expectations for her first-ever city budget early, by asking every city department to come up with across-the-board budget cuts of between 2 and 5 percent—creating the impression that her budget would require difficult choices, while also ensuring that if popular programs did manage to escape the knife, the mayor’s office would get the credit. That, essentially, is what happened—Durkan unveiled a budget that modestly increases general-fund spending, from $5.6 billion to $5.9 billion (slightly more than the rate of inflation) while preserving homelessness programs that were paid for this year with one-time funding, minimizing layoffs, and handing out $65 million in retroactive pay to  Seattle police officers who have been working without a contract since 2015.

Shortly after she released her budget, Durkan’s office sent supporters a list of 18 suggested social media posts intended for use on social media. Each suggested post included messaging and images created by Durkan’s staff. For example, to illustrate the fact that her budget preserves funding for existing homelessness programs without raising taxes, Durkan’s office suggested the following Facebook post:

“To help our neighbors experiencing homelessness, @Mayor Jenny Durkan’s budget commits $89.5 million to support programs that we know work, including rapid rehousing, diversion, and enhanced shelters – without new taxes on businesses and residents.”

For a Twitter post on the new police contract, which also includes a 17 percent raise for officers,, Durkan’s office suggested the following:

. @SeattlePD officers haven’t had a raise since 2014. @MayorJenny’s new budget includes funding for the proposed @SPOG1952 contract that’s a good deal for our officers, good for reform, and good for Seattle. #SEAtheFuture 

Durkan appears to engage in the practice of distributing canned social-media materials, which more than one observer recently described as “very D.C.,” much more frequently than her predecessors. (Kshama Sawant may use city-owned printers to make hundreds of posters for her frequent rallies at city hall, but it’s still unusual for a mayor to use staff time to rally support for her initiatives on social media). As in D.C. politics,  the method is hit  or miss. A quick search of Twitter and Facebook reveals that the hashtag, and a handful of the posts, were mostly picked up by the social-media accounts of several city of Seattle departments—which, of course, report to Durkan.

2. The council got its first look at the budget this past week. And while this year’s discussions are shaping up to be more muted than 2017’s dramatic debate (which culminated in a flurry of last-minute changes after an early version of the head tax failed) council members are asking questions that indicate where their priorities for this year’s budget lie. Here are some of the issues I’ll be keeping an eye on, based on the first week of budget deliberations:

• Golf 

Did you know that Seattle has four taxpayer-funded public golf courses? (The city of Houston, whose population is more than three times that of Seattle, has six). The city is worried about its ability to sustain so many courses, which are supposed to bring in profits of 5 percent a year to pay back the debt the city took out to improve the golf courses to make them more attractive to golfers. (Guess that saying about spending money to make money doesn’t apply to sports with a dwindling fan base?)  This year, the city moved the cost of paying debt service on those upgrades out of the general fund (the main city budget) and into the city’s separate capital budget, where it will be paid for with King County Park Levy funding, as “a bridge solution to address the anticipated [golf revenue] shortfall for 2019,” according to the budget. The city is also considering the use of real estate excise tax (REET) money to pay for debt service on the golf course improvements.

All of this puts the future of municipal golf in question. Parks Department director Christopher Williams told the council Thursday, “We’ve got a sustainability … problem with our golf program. We’ve got a situation where rounds of golf are declining and the cost of labor for golf is increasing. … The policy question is, to what level should we subsidize public golf?

Council member Sally Bagshaw reminded Williams that affordable-housing advocates have suggested using some portion of the golf courses for affordable housing—they do occupy huge swaths of land in a city that has made all but a tiny percentage of its land off-limits to apartment buildings—but Williams demurred. “We feel we have an obligation to explore some of the more restorative steps that ask the question… can we sustain golf in the city? And does that come down to, maybe we can’t sustain four golf courses. Maybe we can only sustain the two most profitable golf courses in the city ultimately. But we don’t feel we have enough information to be in a place where we can make a compelling case that golf courses should become places for affordable housing.” The department is working on a fiscal analysis of the golf courses, which a parks department spokeswoman told me should be out in mid-October.

Budget director Ben Noble said the city is looking at alternatives such as carsharing and sharing motor pools with other jurisdictions, like King County and Sound Transit, to reduce the number of cars the city needs.

• Shrinking the City’s Car Dependence

During her budget speech and in an executive order that accompanied her budget, Mayor Durkan proposed reducing the city’s vehicle fleet, over an unspecified period of time, by 10 percent—a reduction that would mean getting rid of more than 400 city-owned cars. Lorena Gonzalez, who lives in West Seattle and is one of two at-large council members who represent the whole city, had some concerns. “Sometimes my office has to be way up in District 5 or way down in District 2 or over in District 1, and getting there and back in an efficient amount of time using a bus is pretty difficult, so we rely a lot on the motor pool, and I think that’s true of a lot of other departments throughout the city,” Gonzalez said.

“Certainly we try to encourage our employees to ride public transit into the city of Seattle, and I think one of the benefits of doing that, and one of the incentives for doing that, is that if an employee needs to get somewhere during the day, they have a motor pool car available to them.” Budget director Ben Noble responded that the city is looking at alternatives such as carsharing and sharing motor pools with other jurisdictions, like King County and Sound Transit, to reduce the number of cars the city needs.

Support

• Fort Lawton

The former Army base next to Discovery Park has been mothballed for years, awaiting the end of hostilities over a plan to build affordable family, senior, and veteran housing on the grounds. (The Army owns the land but offered it to the city for free more than a decade ago in exchange for an agreement to build affordable housing on the property. The city has been unable to hold up its side of the bargain due to ongoing challenges to its plans for housing.) While neighbors squabble over whether to allow low-income people onto the  high-end peninsula, squatters moved into some of the vacant buildings on the property, and the Army decided it was tired of paying to keep them out. That’s how the cost of securing Fort Lawton fell to the city‚ and ultimately, how a line item for hundreds of thousands of dollars in “Fort Lawton Security and Maintenance Costs” ended up in this year’s city budget.

Gonzalez was the one who noticed the eye-popping number—the Office of Housing and the Department of Finance and Administrative Services are each responsible for about $167,000 in 2019 and $172,455 in 2020—and asked OH director Steve Walker about it. “Throughout 2018, the city took responsibility for maintaining that property, as opposed to the Army maintaining that property, and that was part of the Army’s way of saying, ‘You guys are taking a long time and it’s costing us a lot of money. If we’re going to extend this window of opportunity for you, we want you the city to own those costs,’ and we agreed to do so.” Budget director Noble said the city isn’t in a great position to ask the Army to take on more of the costs to secure the property, given that the city was supposed to build housing there years ago, but added that if the city does manage to reach a deal to develop Fort Lawton, the Seattle public school district—which hopes to purchase some of the property—would be on the hook for some of the costs that the city is incurring now, so “we may even get a rebate.”

“We have two bike lanes in Seattle in District 5 that aren’t even used —125th and, barely, Roosevelt. … Some neighborhoods just don’t need bike lanes—it  just doesn’t make sense to have them.” —District 5 city council member Debora Juarez

• And—What Else?—Bike Lanes

Council member Debora Juarez, who appears to view bike and pedestrian safety improvements as a zero-sum game, sounded frustrated when her colleague Sally Bagshaw talked about the need to connect bike lanes in her downtown district so that people will feel safer riding bikes. (Last year, the percentage of commuters riding their bikes downtown actually declined.)  Juarez said she had “a different take on bike lanes than council member Bagshaw.” Then she unloaded on the idea of spending money on bike lanes in her North Seattle district when many areas don’t even have sidewalks. (This is a perennial complaint about North Seattle that stems largely from the fact that the area was built without sidewalks and annexed to the city in the 1950s.)

“We have two bike lanes in Seattle in District 5 that aren’t even used —125th and, barely, Roosevelt,” Juarez said—a claim that was immediately refuted by North Seattle cyclists on Twitter. “So I’m going to ask you to be accountable to us, to tell me how you’re justifying those bike lanes and their maintenance, particularly when I heard some numbers about … how much are we spending per mile on a bike lane… Was it $10 million or something like that?” This misconception (and it is a misconception) stems from the fact that the city’s cost estimates for bike infrastructure also include things like total street repaving, sewer replacement and repair, streetlight relocation and replacement, sidewalks, and other improvements that benefit the general public. Although bike lanes make up only a fraction of such estimates (a fact that should be obvious, given that simple bike lanes involve nothing more than paint on a road), many opponents of bike safety improvements have seized on the higher numbers to claim that bike lanes are many times more expensive than their actual cost.

Juarez continued, noting that her constituents have griped that bike lanes do not have to go through a full environmental review under the State Environmental Protection Act (a review intended to determine whether bike lanes are bad for the environment). “If you’re just putting them in to slow down traffic, then tell us you’re putting in something to slow down traffic,” Juarez said, adding, “Some neighborhoods just don’t need bike lanes—it  just doesn’t make sense to have them. In some neighborhoods, it does make sense to have them. I wasn’t around when the pedestrian bike plan was passed, but I am around now, and I do have a base that … are still scratching their heads [avout] why there are particular bike lanes and what their costs are.”

The council will hold its first public hearing on the budget at city hall (400 5th Ave.) at 5:30pm this Thursday, October 4.

Durkan’s Proposed Budget Adds Funding for Cops, Congestion Pricing, and Buses, But Not for Safe Consumption or New Spending on Homelessness

Mayor Jenny Durkan’s $5.9 billion budget proposes hiring 40 net new police officers, funds shelter and rental-assistance programs that had been at risk of being cut while keeping overall homeless funding basically flat, and dramatically increases transportation spending, at least on paper—the $130 million in new funding consists primarily of unspent funds from the Move Seattle levy, which is currently undergoing a “reset” because the city can’t pay for everything it promised when voters passed the levy in 2015. The new transportation funding includes funding 100,000 new Metro service hours, including “microtransit” shuttles to bring riders to the ends of the existing RapidRide lines and to the water taxi in West Seattle. Those additional hours will require Metro to  work overtime to add buses, drivers, and bus parking capacity, but Metro spokesman Jeff Switzer says the 100,000 hours were also included in the King County budget that County Executive Dow Constantine transmitted yesterday, as part of a total increase of 177,000 hours of bus service over the next two years.

City budget director Ben Noble said that if the city wanted to significantly increase spending on homelessness, “that is going to have to happen through reprioritizing [funding] or some as-yet-unidentified source of revenues.” Alison Eisinger, director of the Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness, says that, given the ongoing homelessness crisis, “it is unconscionable to put forward a biennial budget … without additional resources for housing.”

The budget would also eliminate about 150 mostly vacant positions, eliminate funding for 217 basic shelter beds provided by the group SHARE after June of next year, fund a new city “ombud” independent from the Human Resources Department, to help employees in city department navigate the process of filing harassment or discrimination claims, and pay police officers $65 million in retroactive pay and benefits from the four years when they were working without a union contract. Officers, Durkan said, have “gone without even a raise but also [without] a [cost of living adjustment]. There hasn’t been pay raise since the beginning of 2014, so that’s four years of pay increases. …  You can get to seemingly large sums really quickly.”

Support

In contrast, the budget proposes making an “inflationary increase adjustment” to what it pays front-line homeless service providers of just 2 percent—less than the actual inflation rate.. Earlier this year, the Downtown Emergency Center sought more than $6 million for salaries and benefits—enough to raise an entry-level counselor’s wages from $15.45 an hour to $19.53 and to boost case managers’ salaries from a high of about $38,000 to $44,550 a year. (Currently, the lowest-paying job listed on DESC’s job board pays $16.32 an hour.) “Even a non-police officer, just a clerical position in a city department, is earning more money in salary—let alone salary plus benefits—than somebody whom we are asking to go out under bridges and work with people who have had years of being brutalized in this world,” Eisinger says.

I’ll have a lot more to say about specific budget proposals over the coming weeks as the city council digs into the details in a series of budget briefings that start on Wednesday, but for now, here are a few more highlights from the mayor’s proposal:

• Durkan’s proposed budget does not include any additional funding for a supervised consumption site (mobile or permanent); instead, it simply pushes $1.3 million that was supposed to fund a place for users to consume their drug of choice under medical supervision, with access to wound care, treatment, and case management forward into this year’s budget. Durkan said Monday that the city would not move forward with supervised consumption site until Durkan is “sure [that King County is] still willing to step up and fund the treatment portion of” a supervised consumption site. Activists, including at least one mother who had lost her son to a heroin overdose, stood outside the Pioneer Square fire station, where Durkan delivered her budget speech, protesting the fact that Durkan’s budget calls for continued inaction on safe consumption sites. It has been more than two years now since a King County task force unanimously recommended supervised consumption as part of a holistic strategy for tackling addiction to heroin and other drugs, the rest of which is slowly being implemented and funded. 

Marlys McConnell, whose son Andrew died of an accidental heroin overdose in January 2015, was wearing a “Silence=Death” t-shirt and holding up the right side of a large banner that read, “Overdose is killing a generation. Is it time to act yet, Mayor Durkan?” She said a safe consumption site could have helped diminish the shame her son felt about his own addiction, which he tried to hide from his family. “Had there been a space available for him, I would very much hope that he could have gone and taken advantage of it and been treated with love and respect and dignity. That could have been a bridge to treatment and other services early on.” McConnell is aware of the argument that safe consumption sites enable drug users to continue in their active addiction, but says, “You don’t get [recovery] ’til you get it.”

• Durkan said she would not support selling off more public land to pay for city budget priorities, as the city has done in the past. (The sale of land in South Lake Union funded new shelter beds and “tiny house village” encampments, as well as a rental-assistance program—all part of the nearly $20 million in services that this year’s budget proposal makes permanent.) The city has put its largest remaining property in South Lake Union, the so-called “Mercer Megablock,” on the market, but Durkan said the city would strongly prefer leasing the property long-term under a master lease to selling it outright. Affordable housing advocates have suggested that the city hang on to the property and use it to build high-rise affordable housing. Noble told me that nothing technically bars the city from using at least some of the land for affordable housing (either city-owned or built by a nonprofit housing provider); however, he noted that because the Seattle Department of Transportation used restricted gas-tax funds to pay for some of the Mercer Corridor Project, which used part of the megablock for construction staging, the city has to pay back SDOT (a cost that could account for about 40 percent of the proceeds from the property) before it can start building anything or funding other projects on the property. The city also has taken out significant debt on the future proceeds from the sale of the megablock site, which would also have to be repaid. Finally, high-rise housing is generally much more expensive (and therefore less appropriate for affordable housing) than low-rise, because it involves glass and steel, although advances in technology are slowly making high-rise affordable housing more feasible.

• Durkan’s budget is mostly silent on the question of the over-budget Center City Streetcar (currently stalled so city consultants can determine whether the city should finish building the downtown connector or cut its losses), but it does include about $9 million in funds over two years to help operate the existing South Lake Union and First Hill streetcars. Previously, the city had backfilled streetcar revenue shortfalls periodically as revenues consistently fell short of projections. The new budget pays for those anticipated shortfalls up front. “We’re trying to be more upfront and honest about what it’s costing for the streetcar so that we won’t continue to run in the red and having to incur the debts that we’ve seen” in the past, Durkan said.

• The transportation budget is otherwise a mixed bag for transit proponents. It includes $1 million to pay for an expanded study of congestion pricing (as currently conceived, a toll for people who want to drive into the center city during certain hours); funds new investments in adaptive signal technology, which Durkan touted as a solution for slow and delayed buses but which the National Association of City Transportation Officials says “can result in a longer cycle length that degrades multi-modal conditions” and is best for moving cars in suburban areas; and proposes asking the legislature to change state law barring the city from using traffic cameras to enforce rules against blocking bike and bus lanes. “Right now, you have to have an actual officer come over and pull them over,” Durkan said—an expensive proposition. The budget also eliminates funding for the “Play Streets” pilot program, which permanently activated some street right-of-way for active (non-car) use, and cuts funding for any new “Pavement to Parks” projects, “takes underused streets and creates public spaces for community use on a year-round, daily basis,” according to the budget.

• The proposed budget moves almost half a million dollars from parks department spending on the city’s four golf courses into the separate capital budget as a “bridge solution” for an ongoing revenue shortfall. Although the city recently invested in improvements to its golf courses—hoping that better facilities, along with higher fees, would bring in more revenue—that hasn’t panned out, and the city has hired a consultant to evaluate the program. Asked why the golf courses aren’t penciling out the way the city had hoped, Noble said that it may be that “golf just isn’t as popular as it used to be.” Affordable-housing proponents have suggested closing down at least some of the city’s golf courses and using them as sites for affordable housing.

The city council begins hearings on the mayor’s budget this week; a full schedule of budget meetings is available on the city’s website.

Best of Crank 2017: Should the City Consider “Privatizing” Public Facilities?

Over the next couple weeks, I’ll be hard at work meeting a big deadline (finishing up my book—eek!), so I’m re-running some posts that represent the best of The C Is for Crank in 2017. The posts I’ve chosen include breaking news, longer features, endorsements, and editorial pieces that capture the year in local news.

This post takes a look at a question that will no doubt continue to come up as the city looks for ways to save money to pay for pressing concerns, like addressing the opiate epidemic and housing some of the thousands of homeless people currently living on Seattle streets: Should the city enter into public-private partnerships to pay for basic services? Earlier this year, the city discussed partnering with a nonprofit to pay for badly needed upgrades at Green Lake Community Center, and a group of community center and pool users mobilized to stop it.

This post ran on April 18.

Should Seattle Avoid “Privatizing” Community Centers at All Costs?

Seattle’s Green Lake Community Center is in disrepair. The gym floor is buckling along the walls. The kitchen has been closed for months because there’s no money in the current city budget to bring it up to code. Buckets are placed at strategic points throughout the building to collect the rainwater that drips from the leaky roof.

As a population boom puts pressure on public facilities like parks, pools and more, the city of Seattle has identified eight community centers that need extensive repairs or total replacement, at an estimated cost of $62 million ($25 million for Green Lake alone). A parks levy for maintenance and operations, which passed narrowly in 2014, provides just $4.3 million a year to maintain and repair all 26 community centers across the city.

The budget gap has prompted the city’s parks department to consider an option that is close to anathema in liberal, pro-tax, anti-corporate Seattle: a public-private partnership, not with a for-profit company but a nonprofit. The idea is a group like the YMCA would provide capital for building and repairs and then operate the center. (The city has not formally reached out to the YMCA, but because it operates community centers in many other cities, both proponents and opponents assume it would be a leading contender to operate Green Lake.)

Although many cities have partnered with corporations in various ways to raise revenue, such deals are virtually unheard of in Seattle, where even the prospect of partnering with a widely respected nonprofit is being labeled “privatization.” See the Seattle Times opinion piece titled “Don’t Privatize Seattle’s Favorite Community Center.”

In response to the still-nascent proposal — which Jesús Aguirre, Seattle parks department director, first brought up at a community meeting in March — a group of Green Lake Community Center users formed a new organization, Save Green Lake Community Center and Evans Pool, to keep the city from shifting operations of a facility they say should be funded out of existing city dollars. “[We were] just appalled that the city would take [the community center] out of public management and effectively give it to a private nonprofit,” says Save Green Lake cofounder Susan Helf. “Providing recreational facilities is a core mission of the city, and it’s inappropriate for the city to transfer that over to a private organization” — particularly one, Helf says, that may pay its workers less than city employees earn, charge higher fees to users, or restrict access to homeless people who currently use the showers at the pool for free.

Aguirre disputes the notion that partnering with a group like the YMCA amounts to privatization. “Privatization would be, let’s give them the keys and they can build a restaurant, they can do whatever they want, as long as they give us some money,” he says. “We’re talking about some kind of operating agreement where we identify an organization that shares our values and continues to provide the same service that we’re providing, but does it better.”

Aguirre says such a partnership would allow the city to close the gap between what tax revenue provides and what the community demands. “There’s always going to be a gap. My challenge is, how do I try to bridge that gap in creative and innovative ways,” he says. Other options Aguirre says the city will consider, if this idea falls through: increasing the levy to 75 cents per $1,000 of property value, which the city can do without another vote; financing a new community center through bonds; or focusing levy dollars on Green Lake at the expense of community centers elsewhere in the city.

Aguirre notes, with some exasperation, that the city already partners with other nonprofits; the Woodland Park Zoo Society runs Seattle’s zoo, for example, and the Associated Recreation Council runs athletics programs and preschools in community centers across the city, including at Green Lake. Opponents point to some of those same deals as examples that make them wary — such as a controversial partnership that allowed a private tennis club in a park in northeast Seattle, or the zoo itself, which engaged in a years-long battle with the surrounding neighborhood over its plans for a multistory parking garage.

Aguirre refers to the model as a “public-benefit partnership,” and says he would never agree to a deal that took away services or made them less accessible to city residents. “Before we enter into any kind of agreement, there’s going to be a clear list of some non-negotiables,” he says. “You can’t create a situation which residents get less than they were getting before, and there’s got to be some community interest being served.”

Helf and her organization want the city to fund community center renovations out of the parks levy, or find the money elsewhere. “The city’s rolling in money. Where’s the money going?” Helf asks. “[Privatization] is the trend now in recreation and parks, and it may be good in small cities that can’t afford a pool, but it has no place in an extremely rich city like Seattle, where money is pouring in.”

Ultimately, city officials say, they won’t force a partnership with the YMCA or any other group if a community doesn’t want it. “What I’ve heard universally from the community that uses the [Green Lake Community Center] is that ‘We don’t trust a partnership,’” says City Council Member Mike O’Brien, who represents the district that includes the Green Lake center. “If the community is flatly opposed to it, I’m fine with that. We won’t do it.” However, O’Brien adds, the money to fund community center improvements has to come from somewhere. “The money’s not just going to magically appear to pay for this, so let’s stay flexible,” he says.

In the long term, partnerships with outside organizations may be unavoidable if the city wants to not only maintain what it has, but expand with its growing population. Putting off a decision this budget cycle may just delay the inevitable.

“We’re going to have to ask, for example, what do the community center needs of the future look like?” Aguirre says. “I’m not being stubborn and saying we have to do this, but in my view, we need to take a step back. We have a system that we’re responsible for. … We have this problem to solve: How do we meet the needs of that system? I think we need to look at partnerships [to do that]. And our charge as the public agency will be to make sure that the overall benefit is greater to the public than it would be without that partnership.”

The Pushback Against ‘Privatizing’ Green Lake Community Center

On Monday, we’ll return to our regularly scheduled Cranking. In the meantime, here’s my latest piece for Seattle Magazine, on the ongoing controversy over a proposed public-private partnership to replace the Green Lake Community Center. 

Image Credit:  Hayley Young

To the casual visitor, the problems plaguing Green Lake Community Center don’t immediately present themselves. Sure, there are a few big plastic buckets scattered to catch the drips that leak from the roof on rainy days, and some of the sagging ceiling tiles are held in place by painter’s tape. But what old building doesn’t have its share of minor issues?

Look closer, however, and the cracks start to show. Some are literal—in the deck and shell of the circa 1955 Evans Pool—and others are metaphorical, like the tiny preschool room that’s bursting at the seams with toys, kids’ bean sprout experiments and child-size chairs. The floor of the gym (which has no wheelchair access) is buckled and sagging because of water damage from the leaking roof, and the upstairs kitchen has been closed for months because there’s no money to pay for the repairs required to bring it up to code.

This litany of issues has led the city to conclude that Green Lake—along with Lake City Community Center, also in North Seattle—should be replaced rather than repaired at an estimated cost of $25 million for Green Lake alone—and Seattle Parks and Recreation says it doesn’t have that kind of money. In fact, the parks department says that replacing Lake City and Green Lake community centers, and repairing six others requiring immediate maintenance, would cost about $62 million, or about 18 times the department’s current budget for such fixes.

To fill the gap, Jesús Aguirre, superintendent of Seattle Parks and Recreation, says the department is considering a public-private partnership with a nonprofit, such as the Associated Recreation Council of Seattle (ARC) or the YMCA, to build and run a new community center at Green Lake. But that idea has run into a wall of opposition from a new group of Green Lake community activists, who say the city should either use current funds to fix the community center or figure out another way to replace it.

Oh, and they have another word for public-private partnerships: privatization.

“Providing recreational facilities is a core mission of the city,” argues Susan Helf, head of the newly formed Save Evans Pool and Green Lake Community Center group. “It’s inappropriate for the city to transfer that over to a private organization that would result in no transparency, union busting, lower pay and higher fees.” (Parks superintendent Aguirre says the city has had no formal conversations with the YMCA, and denies that his department would ever partner with any organization that charges Seattle residents more for less.)

“This is the trend now in recreation and parks, [but] it has no place in an extremely rich city like Seattle, where money is pouring in,” Helf says.

Whether public-private partnerships are ever appropriate and exactly what existing city funds should pay for are at the heart of the Green Lake discussion. Are our community centers really for everyone if they’re run by private nonprofit groups? What responsibility does the city have to come up with the money to keep its recreational facilities from falling apart? And given that voters approved a new property tax in 2014 to pay for parks maintenance, why isn’t there enough money to pay for everything?

To the first, parks superintendent Aguirre points out that the city is no stranger to such arrangements. “We’ve got dozens and dozens of them at this point,” he says. This kind of arrangement is frequently used to maintain and expand popular but expensive programs. Think of the zoo, for example, or the downtown aquarium, both of which are operated by private nonprofit groups. Or, for that matter, the recreational and preschool programs at community centers such as Green Lake’s, which are run by the ARC, a private nonprofit organization.

Aguirre bristles at the notion that partnering with an outside group such the ARC or YMCA constitutes “privatization.” He prefers the term “public benefit partnership.”

“Privatization would be ‘Let’s give them the keys and they can build a restaurant, they can do whatever they want, as long as they give us some money,’” Aguirre says. “We’re talking about some kind of operating agreement where we’d identify an organization that shares our values and continues to provide the same services that we’re providing, but does it better.”

Trying to subsist on current resources will result in the city’s parks and community centers falling into disrepair, Aguirre says.

Not everyone agrees with that assessment, including Helf, who believes the parks department can come up with more funds. One avenue is the 2014 metropolitan park district levy, which gave the city the authority to levy as much as 75 cents per $1,000 on homeowners’ assessed property values. Currently, the city levies just 33 cents of the 75-cent-per-$1,000 maximum. Helf says if the park district is serious about fixing crumbling community centers like Green Lake’s, it could increase the tax, or find the money elsewhere. “I’d certainly pay another $30 a year to get a pool and community center that works,” Helf says.

But other parks advocates say it isn’t that simple. Michael Maddux, one member of the committee that came up with the metropolitan park district proposal, says the plan voters approved in 2014 was designed to backfill about $267 million in deferred maintenance to the city’s parks system, not to fund large capital projects like new community centers. Although the Park District Governing Board (composed of all nine members of the City Council) could direct dollars in a different direction after the current six-year levy cycle runs out, replacing pools and community centers would require additional funding, and “it was made very clear during the campaign that going up to the [levy] cap was not an option, because that would be such a dramatic increase,” Maddux says. Meanwhile, city officials say other potential revenue sources, such as real estate excise taxes, are already earmarked for other purposes.

Aguirre says there is another important issue as well. As the city grows and its population centers shift, it won’t be enough just to maintain our current parks and community centers. The city will have to decide how, and where, to expand the parks system to meet future demand, and how to fund that expansion. That may mean adding new community centers in parts of the city where there are gaps, like Wallingford and South Lake Union, or upgrading services in areas like Rainier Beach, which just received a new community center in 2013.

“We’re going to have to ask, what do the community center needs of the future look like?” Aguirre says. “And it may mean—and these are harder conversations to have—that Green Lake may not be the biggest challenge…. It’s one of 27 community centers, and it’s one of hundreds of amenities that the parks and recreation agency provides for its residents.”

Helf says Green Lake is different, because—unlike other neighborhood parks and community centers—it draws people from all over the city. “There’s some very disturbing language” in the 2016 Community Center Strategic Plan, Helf says, “which says that Green Lake is too white, it’s too wealthy, and it has too many homeowners” to merit immediate investment. “These conclusions that Parks reached are really inaccurate.”

City Council member Mike O’Brien, whose council district includes the Green Lake neighborhood, met with members of Helf’s group during his office hours at the Ballard branch library in April, where they showed up demanding that he pledge to oppose privatizing the community center. Although O’Brien didn’t go that far, he did say that he wouldn’t support any partnership that the community doesn’t want. “If the community is flatly opposed to it, I’m fine with that—we won’t do it,” O’Brien says. But, he cautions, “that money is not just going to magically appear to pay for this, so I would argue that we should stay flexible.”

District 5 City Council member Debora Juarez, who heads up the council’s parks committee, says Helf and her group’s protests are “not falling on deaf ears. Nothing is going to get built or done without community input, and if [a proposed partnership] doesn’t fit with that community and their needs, no one will impose something on them that they don’t want.” In fact, while there are plans underway to develop a process to come up with a long-term vision for the city’s parks system—and a discussion of public-private partnership is expected to be part of that—at press time, there was no timeline.

“If I were still in the private sector, I could think of 10 ways to fund this,” Juarez, a former private attorney, says.

That kind of creativity Juarez alludes to—whether it means privatization or some other funding mechanism—may be needed if what Aguirre asserts is true. “The reality is that we are never going to have the level of resources to meet the demands that are going to be placed on us. There’s always going to be a gap. My challenge is, how do I try to bridge that gap in creative and innovative ways?”

Should Seattle Avoid “Privatizing” Community Centers at All Costs?

This story was originally published at Next City.

Seattle’s Green Lake Community Center is in disrepair. The gym floor is buckling along the walls. The kitchen has been closed for months because there’s no money in the current city budget to bring it up to code. Buckets are placed at strategic points throughout the building to collect the rainwater that drips from the leaky roof.

As a population boom puts pressure on public facilities like parks, pools and more, the city of Seattle has identified eight community centers that need extensive repairs or total replacement, at an estimated cost of $62 million ($25 million for Green Lake alone). A parks levy for maintenance and operations, which passed narrowly in 2014, provides just $4.3 million a year to maintain and repair all 26 community centers across the city.

The budget gap has prompted the city’s parks department to consider an option that is close to anathema in liberal, pro-tax, anti-corporate Seattle: a public-private partnership, not with a for-profit company but a nonprofit. The idea is a group like the YMCA would provide capital for building and repairs and then operate the center. (The city has not formally reached out to the YMCA, but because it operates community centers in many other cities, both proponents and opponents assume it would be a leading contender to operate Green Lake.)

Although many cities have partnered with corporations in various ways to raise revenue, such deals are virtually unheard of in Seattle, where even the prospect of partnering with a widely respected nonprofit is being labeled “privatization.” See the Seattle Times opinion piece titled “Don’t Privatize Seattle’s Favorite Community Center.”

In response to the still-nascent proposal — which Jesús Aguirre, Seattle parks department director, first brought up at a community meeting in March — a group of Green Lake Community Center users formed a new organization, Save Green Lake Community Center and Evans Pool, to keep the city from shifting operations of a facility they say should be funded out of existing city dollars. “[We were] just appalled that the city would take [the community center] out of public management and effectively give it to a private nonprofit,” says Save Green Lake cofounder Susan Helf. “Providing recreational facilities is a core mission of the city, and it’s inappropriate for the city to transfer that over to a private organization” — particularly one, Helf says, that may pay its workers less than city employees earn, charge higher fees to users, or restrict access to homeless people who currently use the showers at the pool for free.

Aguirre disputes the notion that partnering with a group like the YMCA amounts to privatization. “Privatization would be, let’s give them the keys and they can build a restaurant, they can do whatever they want, as long as they give us some money,” he says. “We’re talking about some kind of operating agreement where we identify an organization that shares our values and continues to provide the same service that we’re providing, but does it better.”

Aguirre says such a partnership would allow the city to close the gap between what tax revenue provides and what the community demands. “There’s always going to be a gap. My challenge is, how do I try to bridge that gap in creative and innovative ways,” he says. Other options Aguirre says the city will consider, if this idea falls through: increasing the levy to 75 cents per $1,000 of property value, which the city can do without another vote; financing a new community center through bonds; or focusing levy dollars on Green Lake at the expense of community centers elsewhere in the city.

Aguirre notes, with some exasperation, that the city already partners with other nonprofits; the Woodland Park Zoo Society runs Seattle’s zoo, for example, and the Associated Recreation Council runs athletics programs and preschools in community centers across the city, including at Green Lake. Opponents point to some of those same deals as examples that make them wary — such as a controversial partnership that allowed a private tennis club in a park in northeast Seattle, or the zoo itself, which engaged in a years-long battle with the surrounding neighborhood over its plans for a multistory parking garage.

Aguirre refers to the model as a “public-benefit partnership,” and says he would never agree to a deal that took away services or made them less accessible to city residents. “Before we enter into any kind of agreement, there’s going to be a clear list of some non-negotiables,” he says. “You can’t create a situation which residents get less than they were getting before, and there’s got to be some community interest being served.”

Helf and her organization want the city to fund community center renovations out of the parks levy, or find the money elsewhere. “The city’s rolling in money. Where’s the money going?” Helf asks. “[Privatization] is the trend now in recreation and parks, and it may be good in small cities that can’t afford a pool, but it has no place in an extremely rich city like Seattle, where money is pouring in.”

Ultimately, city officials say, they won’t force a partnership with the YMCA or any other group if a community doesn’t want it. “What I’ve heard universally from the community that uses the [Green Lake Community Center] is that ‘We don’t trust a partnership,’” says City Council Member Mike O’Brien, who represents the district that includes the Green Lake center. “If the community is flatly opposed to it, I’m fine with that. We won’t do it.” However, O’Brien adds, the money to fund community center improvements has to come from somewhere. “The money’s not just going to magically appear to pay for this, so let’s stay flexible,” he says.

In the long term, partnerships with outside organizations may be unavoidable if the city wants to not only maintain what it has, but expand with its growing population. Putting off a decision this budget cycle may just delay the inevitable.

“We’re going to have to ask, for example, what do the community center needs of the future look like?” Aguirre says. “I’m not being stubborn and saying we have to do this, but in my view, we need to take a step back. We have a system that we’re responsible for. … We have this problem to solve: How do we meet the needs of that system? I think we need to look at partnerships [to do that]. And our charge as the public agency will be to make sure that the overall benefit is greater to the public than it would be without that partnership.”