Rambling across the thousands of acres of pristine nature or tumbling over playground equipment, you might wonder, “Who’s paying for all this?”
The simple answer, of course, is we are. But a more specific answer depends on whether you’re swinging a golf club, stopping for an ice cream in Riverfront Park or scampering through the fossilized maze at Discovery Playground.
The envy of the region is the city of Spokane’s system, a voter-protected relic of the age when the so-called “father” of the city’s park system, Aubrey L. White, earned his other moniker as Spokane’s “Civic Horse Trader” by snatching up land for use by the public in the early 20th century. The city charter, the document that gives municipal government its authority, requires that Spokane spend no less than 8 percent of its taxpayer-supported budget annually to maintain its parks.
“The structure seems a little bit unique,” said Kevin Roth, vice president of research at the National Recreation and Park Association in Washington, D.C. “It’s definitely a very progressive, very forward-thinking way to protect those assets in the park system.”
Still, today’s system is not as generous as it might have been. Following the approval of an appointed Park Board in 1907, free from the influence of city politicians, White led the charge three years later for passage of a property tax assessment requiring $1 of every $1,000 worth of assessed valued on property in the city to be spent on parks. The money raised helped expand the city’s park system dramatically and remained in place for more than 75 years.
But in the early 1980s, the rapidly increasing value of land within city limits and the relatively stagnant growth of its budget presented Spokane leaders with a new problem: They might be required to spend too much on parks, at the risk of other city services.
In March 1982, Spokane Parks Director Frank McCoy told the Spokane Park Board the city was on “a collision course” where its obligation to fund parks would require the city to pry away as much as $300,000 from other city services in order to not violate the city’s founding document.
The 8 percent figure represented roughly what the city had been spending on parks for the eight years prior to the vote, then-City Manager Terry Novak told The Spokesman-Review at the time. It was intended to keep funding level even if property values continued to soar.
The plan was defeated by voters in 1982 but fared better a year later as city voters appeared more keen to alter their governance. The Parks Department promptly began investigating ways to chop their budget in November 1983 by as much as a quarter million dollars, according to a story in the Nov. 11, 1983, edition of The Spokesman-Review.
Today, that 8 percent has continued to grow, as has the city’s overall spending on taxpayer-supported services, Parks Director Leroy Eadie said.
“I think that’s what good leaders in the past did,” Eadie said. “I think that was their thought process. We want an extensive park system. We want to maintain our park system; we want it to be the best in the nation. We’re going to make an investment there.”
The guarantee allows park planners to have a pretty good idea of their budget each year early in the process, rather than fight through a political process for budget money against other departments, such as police or fire. The park system brings in additional money through other programs and initiatives, including partnerships with organized enthusiasts of archery, pickleball, bocce ball and the region’s extensive trail system, to name a few.
“Sometimes it blows me away, that there’s so much complexity and diversity in the offerings that we have,” Eadie said. “That’s something that Spokane does. I know a lot of other neighboring communities don’t have the opportunity to pull that off, necessarily. We’re pretty glad to be able to do that.”
As a share of its taxpayer-supported services, Spokane Valley spends a relatively equal amount each year of its budget on maintaining the park system. The difference is the scale.
“Our challenge here is to continue to try and elevate the awareness of parks and recreation so that people see it as a necessary part of the infrastructure,” Spokane Valley Park Director Mike Stone said. “That’s challenging, I think, as you are working with such a young city.”
Compared to Spokane’s 4,000-plus acres of parkland, 87 city parks and 90-plus full- time employees, the city of Spokane Valley is what Stone called “an infant.” He oversees a staff of nine, five of whom are assigned to CenterPlace, a city-owned event facility that is funded through the city’s parks and recreation system.
When it incorporated in 2003, Spokane Valley decided to contract out many of its services and keep the city’s payroll to a minimum, said Stone, who’s also served as head of parks for the city of Spokane. That includes trash collection, law enforcement – and upkeep of the city’s 191-acre park system, which is handled by Senske Services.
“It’s pretty novel, unique and rare for the country,” Stone said. “Over time, they’ve become the face of our department.”
Spokane Valley lacks the influence of an Aubrey White-type figure, and has no document like the Olmsted brothers plan, drafted in 1908 and calling for development of a park system to combat urban life’s “decidedly depressing effect on the general health and stamina of the bread winners.”
“We are neighbors to one of the best park systems in the country,” Stone said. “We don’t have to go very far to see a good role model.”
Spokane Valley’s taxpayers will spend a little more than $3 million this year on its park system. By comparison, Spokane’s system – which encompasses more than 4,000 acres and 87 city parks – will cost the city taxpayers $14 million in 2018. That doesn’t include the bond money being spent to renovate Riverfront Park.
Different cities fund their parks in different ways, said Roth, the researcher for the National Recreation and Park Association. But one of the ways the organization can track a community’s commitment to its park system is by tracking the per capita expenses on public spaces.
“Those numbers can vary dramatically,” Roth said. “In some areas, it’s between $200 and $300. In some areas, it’s as low as $20.”
A 2018 study by the association found the average local government spends $78.26 per person on its park system each year, when you include both taxpayer-funded expenses out of the general fund as well as other costs. Spokane will spend about $99 per citizen on its parks this year, about two-thirds of which will be funded by taxpayers; Spokane Valley, a little more than $57, with more than half of that ($31) coming from the general fund.
Spokane County falls on the low end of the spectrum, at just $20 if you include the $7 million paid to run its three golf courses. Like the city of Spokane, golf is what’s known as an “enterprise fund,” a service that is supported by user-generated fees.
Doug Chase, Spokane County parks director, said there are many competing interests for county dollars, including a large portion of each year’s budget toward running the aging jail.
“There is no dedicated percent, or portion of the budget if you will, that is guaranteed or earmarked regardless of any and all things that happen, the way that the city of Spokane does it,” he said.
That led to some decisions during the economic downturn caused by the 2008 housing bubble to cut back on maintenance at some county parks. A tiered system was created that prioritized which parks would receive the most attention, while others were left to the care of private, charitable organizations.
That wouldn’t have happened if the county had a dedicated funding source like the city’s, Chase said.
What is unique to the county is the Conservation Futures program, a tax created by voters 24 years ago to pay for buying undeveloped land. Think of it as the descendant of White’s plan in the early 20th century, adapted for a time when development has become attractive on the outskirts of the region’s urban boundaries.
The program has raised nearly $37 million and led to the purchase of nearly 8,000 acres of land, all of which is protected from future development. Acquisitions include areas along the western banks of the Spokane River, where trails are envisioned to link Riverside State Park with downtown Spokane, as well as the Dishman Hills Conservation Area providing overlooks of the Palouse plains to the south.
Subscribe to the Morning Review newsletter
Get the day’s top headlines delivered to your inbox every morning by subscribing to our newsletter