Why Vancouver can afford a new park

As I was doing interviews for an Aug. 29 story about Vancouver’s neighborhood parks turning crisp and brown due to lack of watering, a couple of people asked me how the city could afford to build a $17 million waterfront park next year when it can’t maintain the parks it already has.

The 7-acre city park will be a key feature of a $1.3 billion residential and commercial development that’s planned for 32 acres of formerly industrial waterfront just west of the Interstate 5 Bridge. The park, which will include a futuristic, cable-suspended pier, is slated to open to the public sometime in 2017.

Meanwhile, the city hasn’t beefed up parks maintenance funding since the budget cuts of the Great Recession, when maintenance staffing was cut in half to preserve police and fire services. Since 2010, caring for the city’s 83 parks, plus hundreds of acres of other city property that includes cemeteries, trails and medians, has been tasked to just 15 workers. To save money on water and mowing, the city shut down park irrigation systems, too.

After five years of neglect, the parks – with the exception of Esther Short Park — are looking a little shabby. And the public is complaining.

So what’s the city doing building a grand new park that will be the centerpiece of a shiny new downtown development?

I posed the question to Julie Hannon, the city’s Parks and Recreation director. She said it comes down to the difference between one-time capital funding versus ongoing maintenance funding.

The city is paying for the new waterfront park with local funding, state funding, state grants, federal grants, a contribution from the developer and private/ benevolent giving. This is a one-time funding effort that won’t encumber the city with any further debt, Hannon said. Many of these funding sources for the waterfront park could only be used for capital expenditures, not ongoing maintenance funding.

To maintain the waterfront park, the city and waterfront project developer will look for new, sustainable funding sources, she said. Some of the money could be generated by the surrounding development itself, such as through sales tax or occupancy tax, Hannon said.

By contrast, it’s much harder to find grants to pay for tasks such as bathroom maintenance and mowing, she said. Therefore, park maintenance money comes from the city’s general fund, which also pays for police and fire services. When times are tight, the money naturally goes to public safety first.

But with city revenues finally rebounding after the recession, city staff members are looking at the city’s full scope of services to see where the greatest financial needs are. Parks maintenance funding possibly could increase in the next budget cycle that starts in 2017 – but whether it will be enough to totally reverse the damage is unknown.

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