Most people cringe at just the thought of raising taxes, but in 2004 the voters of Olympia, Washington approved a 3% utility tax to improve their parks, sidewalks, and open space. With the new revenue, the city has purchased land for two neighborhood parks and sidewalk improvements are well underway. According to Jim Lazar, a bicycle and pedestrian advocate who sits on the city council-appointed steering committee overseeing implementation, "Before the passage of the policy, there was a huge backlog of sidewalk projects. With current construction rates, this has become a 30-year achievable program. Five times as many sidewalks are being developed."
Demonstrating immediate results was important. Voters need to know that their tax dollars are being spent wisely, so the planning department prioritized making upgrades to city sidewalks and focusing on building connections to schools, transit and other major pedestrian destinations. These changes are already making it easier for Olympians to walk in their city. Park development will take a little longer. The city has purchased parkland, but it still needs to generate additional funds to build the parks.
Deciding to put forth a utility tax was not an easy decision. Advocates and city officials were worried about the burden on taxpayers, particularly low-income families. Low-income families usually spend a higher percentage of their income on utilities than higher-income families so people were worried that a tax hike from 6% to 9% would really hit some residents' pocketbooks hard. They considered fundraising alternatives, but in the final analysis the utility tax was the mechanism that would raise the needed revenue. When City Council did the math they found that it would cost the average Olympia household about $60 per year-just sixteen cents per day. Figuring it this way, the public benefits were hard to pass up. Polling data from other sources demonstrates that low-income families tend to strongly support measures for public infrastructure like parks, playgrounds and open space.
While crafting the measure, Olympia City Council conducted a feasibility assessment to see what voters would be willing to support. Polling results showed that 42% of likely voters would support sidewalks alone, 49% would support parks alone, and 57% would support parks and sidewalks. They also found out why likely voters were willing to support a tax: "When we polled residents and asked what activities they engaged in, many answered walking in their neighborhoods" says Lazar. With these results in hand, it became clear that only by combining parks and sidewalks issues would they be able to secure the majority vote needed for the policy to pass. Lazar is confident that this approach was the key: "We realized that by bundling the two issues together, we could garner more support and this was critical to our success." His advice: "Combine more than one public benefit into a single measure. Parks, sidewalks, bike lanes, pedestrian crossing improvements, and other active non-motorized infrastructure can all be combined, and will build a multi-constituency support network."
In the end, the voters spoke for themselves. A majority supported a tax increase to build parks, playgrounds and preserve open space. Now, with more sidewalks and parks in Olympia neighborhoods, it's a lot easier for residents to be active whether for errands, to commute or just to have fun. Olympia's success shows that with the right mix of strategy and creativity, people are willing to support healthier, more active communities.
From: ENACT Local Policy Database. Check out Olympia's Park and Recreation Facilities policy for more details.