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Our Opinion: Parks plan must send the right message

Portland still doesn’t have a plan to fix its streets, but Commissioner Amanda Fritz is plowing forward with a proposal to repair city parks. And her approach includes a pledge even fiscal conservatives can love: no new taxes.

In 1994, Portland voters passed a parks and recreation bond measure, which will be paid off next year. When those bonds are retired, an opportunity will open up to sell new bonds while keeping parks-related taxes essentially the same for Portland property owners.

The alternative, of course, would be to allow the tax rate for parks to decrease ever so slightly, but let’s face it, this is Portland and such thoughts are fleeting at best. So Fritz, who is the commissioner in charge of Portland Parks & Recreation, is stepping in with her proposal to sell $56 million to $68 million in new bonds to pay for park maintenance and improvements.

Unlike the 1994 bond measure, the 2014 proposal won’t include shiny enticements — such as new community centers — but will focus on taking care of the PP&R facilities that Portlanders already own. The parks bureau has already identified a need for more than $365 million in deferred parks replacement and maintenance projects.

This bond measure wouldn’t solve all the problems, but it would provide enough to pay for more than 31 capital improvement projects on a list of 797 projects. Examples include: repair of deteriorating playgrounds such as the Couch Park structure, reopening and stabilizing trails such as the Maple Trail in Forest Park, repair of community swimming pool facilities and repairing the Mount Tabor Yard to ensure worker safety. Additional projects would be identified for funding after those are done.

Fritz is confident she has the City Council votes necessary on July 24 to send the measure to the Nov. 4 general election ballot. What’s less certain is how voters will view the measure. According to a recent survey commissioned by the city, voters are much more likely to support the bond measure if they are aware it won’t raise their tax rates. In a poll of 800 registered voters, just 48 percent were supportive of the bond when asked the question without complete background information. Once voters found out the measure would not increase parks-related taxes, support shot up to

68 percent.

This means that parks supporters have two critical messages they must deliver to the public if they hope to succeed in November: First, they must be ready to provide specifics about what the bond revenue will accomplish, and second they must repeatedly emphasize the tax-neutral nature of this proposal.

Even if the 1994 bonds were retired with no replacement measure, taxes for the owner of a typical home — assessed for tax purposes at $150,000 — would only go down $13 a year.

Because of the modest tax impact, some parks supporters may be disappointed that the city isn’t planning to ask for more money, so it can expand the list of projects and perhaps increase its park assets. Fritz admits that shortcoming and also concedes the bond measure won’t do a lot to bring parks equity to under-served portions of East Portland. Fritz understands the need for more parks in the city — especially in East Portland — but said that, at least in the short term, those needs must be met through the Systems Development Charges the city collects from new development projects.

What shouldn’t get obscured in the discussion of taxes, however, is the essential role that parks play in a city’s quality of life and economic wellbeing. According to a report by the American Planning Association, parks are one of the most effective methods for solving municipal problems such as eliminating graffiti, reducing crime and managing traffic. To that point, some parts of Portland with the highest crime rates are also those with the fewest parks.

With that in mind, it makes good sense to send this measure to the November ballot and allow Portlanders to decide if they want to keep investing the same sum of money into park repair and maintenance. In the longer run, it also would be logical for the city to consider how it can take better care of its parks on an ongoing basis. Such a plan would require allocating dollars on an annual basis to a parks-maintenance fund that would reduce the need for continuing bond measures in the future.

This measure, if approved by voters, only addresses a portion of the need for park upkeep. Fritz and her fellow city commissioners have an obligation as well to look for more comprehensive ways to maintain a park system that is the envy of many other cities.