Letter to the editor: Cultural Arts District is the best option
Thank you for publishing Bill Sehmel’s letter regarding the proposed Peninsula Cultural Arts District. I’d like to provide a few key details and differences between what park districts and Cultural Arts Districts can do for the community.
While I’m a big fan and supporter of all our regional parks, there are Washington State laws that govern what these taxing districts can and cannot do. For example, the RCWs for the Peninsula Cultural Arts District pre-define the boundary of a proposed district, and it must either mirror a community college district or a school district.
The Peninsula School District is a much better fit for the Cultural Arts District due to our regional typography. Taxing districts for Cultural Arts also cannot overlap, which would be the case if the community college district option were adopted due to the establishment of “Tacoma Creates” (a sales tax-based cultural arts taxing district).
The proposed Peninsula School District boundary also mirrors the service areas of many of our local cultural non-profits. Both the Harbor History Museum (aka the Gig Harbor Peninsula Historical Society) and Harbor WildWatch provide programming and services throughout the entire school district and are not restricted to only the Gig Harbor city limits. Everyone is welcome in our programs and facilities, no matter where they live.
There is also a big difference between the city residents voting to join the Park District and all of the local cultural serving non-profits “joining” the Park District. These are all independent non-profits who would stand to gain much-needed operating funds from the Cultural Arts District who need to pay staff, maintain facilities, and provide programming.
Is the Park District ready and willing to create a dedicated pool of nearly $2 million to support these non-profits at the level a dedicated Cultural Arts District would provide? And would the Park District do so with less bureaucracy than a dedicated board whose mandate is to ensure the support of these organizations and the ethical distribution of funds?
When it comes down to the bottom line, if Gig Harbor city residents petitioned and voted to become part of Peninsula Metropolitan Parks District, their property taxes would increase by $0.67 cents per $1,000 value (per the Pierce County Assessor site). In contrast, the proposed Peninsula Cultural Arts District would be just $0.10 cents per $1,000 value.
Washington’s RCWs for Metropolitan Park Districts are not clear about the adoption of museums and cultural tourism-serving organizations in their definition of “other recreational facilities.” RCW 36.69.010 defines the term “recreational facilities” as:
“Parks, playgrounds, gymnasiums, swimming pools, field houses, bathing beaches, stadiums, golf courses, automobile racetracks and drag strips, coliseums for the display of spectator sports, public campgrounds, boat ramps and launching sites, public hunting and fishing areas, arboretums, bicycle and bridle paths, senior citizen centers, community centers, and other recreational facilities.”
The only local example where we might find a comparison is that of Fort Nisqually and Tacoma MetroParks (also funded by a taxing district). In that case, all of the Fort’s staff are park district employees (with associated benefits) and the district provides most of the basic operating funds to maintain the facility. The remainder of the Fort’s budget is secured through earned income activities. Point Defiance Zoo has a similar set up.
In contrast, most of our local cultural tourism serving educational non-profits, such as the Harbor History Museum, must raise their entire operating budgets every year through the boom-and-bust of donations, grants, and earned income. Employees have thin, if any, benefits, and pay rates are significantly lower than those of municipalities and industry standards for comparable work and qualifications.
I know that we all want our parks, schools, libraries, and cultural attractions to survive and thrive. In the natural evolution of communities, taxing districts have emerged as dedicated funding streams to ensure that survival.
The first special purpose districts were enacted when Washington became a state in 1889, such as school and road districts. Metropolitan Park Districts were enacted in 1907 to “enable Tacoma to fund a zoo.” Regional library districts were authorized in 1937, with our own Pierce County Rural Library District formed in 1946. Washington State has a plethora of taxing districts ranging from weed and mosquito control to sewers, flood, cemeteries, stadiums, soil and land conservation, but there is no taxing district that directly supports museums as there is in other states.
Instead, we have just two options: Cultural Access, a sales tax, and the Cultural Arts, Stadium and Convention District, which is a property tax. The later tax will never yield enough to fund a stadium or convention center, but it can be a game-changer for our local cultural arts organizations.
I believe that museums and cultural sites are the fourth pillar of a community, standing with schools, parks, and libraries. But ultimately, that question is up to the voters in our community. So, I ask, how valuable is preserving our cultural identity and community memory? How important is it to support museums, historic sites, and cultural tourism through the creation of a special purpose taxing district? Ultimately, the vote, and voice, is yours.
Harbor History Museum
Reference: Special Purpose Districts in Washington © 2003 by the Municipal Research and Services Center of Washington.