Central Whidbey studies takeover of parks

The fate of five Central Whidbey parks hang in the balance as leaders in both Island County and Washington state government eyeball them with thoughts of budget cutting.

But a possible solution may be on the horizon. A group of parks-loving residents are spearheading an effort to form a Central Whidbey Parks and Recreation District to take over and look after the parks.

The group is holding a roundtable discussion with stakeholders and interested folks Thursday, March 19,

at 5:30 p.m. at the Coupeville Recreation Hall. The public is encouraged to participate.

It’s an idea that was being tossed around before the current economic imbroglio forced elected officials to consider such drastic steps as putting parks on the chopping block.

“People are frustrated with the county,” said Terri Arnold, director of South Whidbey Parks and Recreation District. She is the former county parks superintendent.

“Island County needs to either get into the parks business or get out. They are not doing a very good job with

the parks.”

Specifically, Arnold points out that the department was moved from general services to planning at the beginning of 2007. Now the commissioners are considering moving it to public works. The parks plan is out of compliance, which means the county isn’t eligible for grants.

“Moving it from department to department has caused a lot of instability,” she said.

Arnold said the commissioners she’s talked with were keenly interested in the idea. The details would have to be ironed out, but the basic idea is that the county would somehow transfer ownership of the county’s parks in the Coupeville area to the parks and recreation district.

The parks include Libbey Beach, Rhododendron Park and the Patmore Off-Leash Dog Park.

Some county officials have suggested closing down such “non-mandated” departments as parks to help close the county’s $2 million budget deficit.

Similarly, state parks officials placed Fort Casey State Park and Fort Ebey State Park on a list of possible closures. Lawmakers asked the department to create a list of $23 million in cuts.

A parks and recreation districts are junior taxing districts. That might be a non-starter for some people, but the tax is generally pretty small. On South Whidbey, Arnold said, property owners pay 15 cents per $1,000 of assessed value. North Whidbey has a parks district primarily occupied with running a swimming pool.

The process of starting a parks and recreation district begins with the creation of a committee and the circulation of a petition. At least 15 percent of the people in the district have to sign the petition. After the auditor checks the signatures, the county commissioners can decide to put it on the ballot.

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