March 4, 2002
King County Parks cutbacks to keep Kingsgate Park closed
by Jeanette Knutson
Maybe you've heard. King County is in the midst of a financial crisis. With a 2003-budget shortfall of $50 million and at least another $30 million shortfall projected for 2004, something has to give.
"Parks is a county agency and we're taking our share of cuts like everybody else," said King County Parks spokesman Al Dams.
In January, County Executive Ron Sims lopped $2.3 million from the Parks budget by merging the former Parks Department with the Department of Natural Resources to achieve administrative efficiencies. Twenty-one full-time positions were eliminated, 19 positions were reduced from 12-month to 8-month employment, and maintenance activities at many parks throughout the system have been reduced.
Now, in an effort to save an additional $1 million, Sims has recommended a few midyear budget chops. For starters, 20 parks that have been closed since Jan. 1, and were scheduled to open March 1, are to remain closed for the entire year. Amongst the 20 is Kingsgate Park at 116th Avenue Northeast and Northeast 140 Street, the only park in our readership area affected by the action.
Dams describes the park as a neighborhood open-space park with trails, a passive park with no swimming pool, ball fields or playground equipment. It is, in fact, a hilly block of land with a big enclosed canopy of cedars. A couple quarter-mile trails loop down and up the terrain. A wooden bridge crosses a ravine at the bottom of the first slope. It's perfect for neighborhood walkers, dog walkers and trail-bike riders.
Dams said the gate at the entrance of the park will not be locked. The trail trimming and trimming around the borders of the park will be reduced, as will the number of garbage pickups.
Gerry Croteau uses Kingsgate Park on average five times a week. He calls it, and aptly so, "a nice little oasis."
But unless they deny access, said Croteau, he doesn't see how closing the park will have much affect on park users.
"It's only minimally maintained as it is," he said.
"Maybe one possibility is for people in the community to step up and do some volunteer upkeep. There's a stream on the far end of the park and we've already picked up garbage around there," said Croteau.
Joan Knutsen has lived in the Kingsgate neighborhood for over three years. One of the reasons she and husband Bill took an interest in their current house was Kingsgate Park across the street. She walks through the park seven days a week, calling it a "very safe park, nice to have."
Knutsen is not too concerned about the county's labeling the park "closed" for the entire year, as long as the neighborhood has access.
"I've always found the park service very accommodating to the needs of the neighborhood," she said. "I hope the recession is short-lived and we don't have to worry about park closures in the long run."
"System-wide," said Parks' spokesman Dams, "parks will be maintained to a lower level." That goes for Cottage Lake Park in Woodinville and area ball fields as well, he said. What this means is less mowing, trimming, weeding, field preparation.
Furthermore, the annual summertime Heritage Festival at Marymoor Park has been eliminated. The only way it might still be staged is if someone steps up and pays for it, "... and we're talking $180,000," said Dams.
As part of that million dollar savings, Sims is also recommending a package of fee increases to the King County Council for immediate implementation. If approved, the fee package would increase fees by 10 to 20 percent; swimming pool fees, ball field fees for games and practices, program fees, picnic shelter fees - all fees, said Dams.
Other midyear budget-reducing actions will likely be elimination of playground programs and preschool programs system-wide.
"King County's fiscal crisis is forcing us to keep parks closed and eliminate programs that the community values, like the Heritage Festival at Marymoor Park," said Sims. "While we know what these parks and programs add to our quality of life in the area, parks are simply a lower priority than legally mandated criminal justice and public health services."
In addition to these actions, the county executive announced the formation of a task force that will be charged with finding new ways of long-term funding for parks and recreation services in the future. The county says it currently operates under an outdated funding structure that depends on property taxes - that are capped - and the volatile sales tax, which is declining during this recession.
King County Council Chair Cynthia Sullivan said that the executive and council "have massaged this county's budget to keep direct service reductions to a minimum. Even after a hiring freeze and a drawdown of reserves, park closures and other service impacts proved unavoidable. Some may talk about trimming the fat from county government, but we are now down to cutting into meat and bone."
"There is no question," said Council Budget Chair Larry Phillips, "people like their parks. I like parks. The problem is parks and swimming pools cost money, which is something we don't have a lot of right now. King County has built up one of the finest municipal park systems in the country. I do not want to see us dismantle it, but the county is continuously being asked to provide improved regional services with less and less of a tax base. Something has to give."
The task force, to be comprised of leaders from business, user groups and the community, and lead by Gene Duvernoy, president of Cascade Land Conservancy, will meet over the next four months to develop a report highlighting new funding recommendations. Sims is hoping the task force will submit draft recommendations by June 1, in time to consider any potential impacts on the 2003 budget.
" ... We must find a new way," said Sims, "to continue to deliver ... world-class park and recreation services in King County for future generations."