Pondering a penny for parks

Feb. 22, 2014 @ 01:53 AM

Two years ago, the Durham City Council raised property taxes by a penny a $100 of a property’s assessed value. Unlike most tax assessments, which are plowed into the city’s general fund for overall operations, the tax hike was earmarked for providing housing.

The decision was not without conflict.

Now, the City Council is poised for another contentious debate over whether to adopt the same principle – a tax hike dedicated to a particular expense – to raising money for the city’s parks program.

The council appears conflicted. So, we confess, are we.

It is hard to argue that the city’s parks could use more money. As population has grown rapidly here and as recreation and outdoor activities have surged in popularity, the demands on existing parks are strong. Population growth in South Durham especially has outpaced the city’s ability to provide an adequate and equitable amount of parkland in that area.

Thus, city administrators this week gave the council the initial outline of a proposal to add one cent to the property tax rate that would generate about $2.4 million a year for parks acquisition, improvement and maintenance.

A penny for parks – it has a warm and appealing ring to it.

We strongly endorse the importance of parks – and recreation activities in them – as a public good.

But as the council weighs this proposal, there are cautionary considerations.

For starters, there is some danger in tying tax increases – or any portion of the tax rate generally – to specific earmarks. Needs change over time, sometimes rapidly. We elect council members to weigh the needs of the moment and allocate scarce public resources in the best way possible. Hemming them in with preordained allocations can distort that process.

That said, we understand that with public confidence in government eroded, promising very specific uses for new taxes may be a necessary step toward getting public support for necessary expenditures.

Then, there are the concerns raised by Mayor Bill Bell and Councilwoman Diane Catotti.

“I’ve got to be convinced we’ve got a plan in place that shows how we can maintain what we’ve got,” Bell said as the council discussed the idea Wednesday.

Councilman Steve Schewel noted that part of the city’s problem is that overuse of limited facilities actually increases maintenance costs.

The political reality is that there is little chance of significant new investment in parks without something like the “penny for parks” proposal. “Most of the priorities we’ve been trying to respond to” in the normal budget process “have been around public safety and streets,” City Manager Tom Bonfield noted. In the city’s research, those continue to be the public’s highest priorities – although residents do speak out for parks.

The budget process is in the early stages. Bonfield and his administrative colleagues have introduced a creative and potentially transformative idea.

It is hardly a slam-dunk. We await the public debate over this idea likely to unfold before the council moves toward adopting a budget later this year.