Too big, not a priority, city says in turning away park offer

Mayor says 48-acre property too big a maintenance issue

PORT ORCHARD – Thanks, but no thanks. It’s too big.

That was Port Orchard Mayor Rob Putaansuu’s response to Kitsap County’s offer to give Veterans Memorial Park back to the city

The city turned down taking ownership of the county park because of the cost of maintaining the 48-acre property, with numerous athletic fields and a wooded area that up until recently housed several homeless encampments.

“We would love to take over the park,” Putaansuu said. “But, Veterans Park is bigger than all of our other city parks combined. Unlike some communities, we don’t have a parks department and a dedicated funding source” for park maintenance.

Port Orchard’s decision was based on public priorities, Putaansuu said. “We did a survey about what are [people’s] biggest priorities because solving any of the challenges in our community takes funding,” the mayor said. “Unfortunately, number one was traffic and congestion, and at the bottom of the list was parks — in particular, Veterans Park.”

Passage of a levy would be needed to maintain the park, Putaansuu said. “Your typical parks and recreation levy is a property tax that’s dedicated to the maintenance and operations of parks and programs. I don’t think that is in our immediate future.” The park is located within Port Orchard’s city limits and borders the county.

County Commissioner Charlotte Garrido, who represents South Kitsap, seems OK with the city’s thumbs-down response. “It has actually been in county ownership for some time. I don’t see any downside in particular if the county keeps it, she said.

Had the transfer happened, it would have been done at no cost, county Parks director Alex Wisniewski said. “It lives within their city limits and primarily serves folks within the city boundaries. It would give them a heightened level of control and management over a park for their residents,” he said.

Transferring the park would benefit the parks department’s “thin staffing budget” and allow the county to move its resources to maintain parks in unincorporated areas, he added. “Currently, we don’t have any county parks in the city of Bremerton, city of Poulsbo, or the city of Bainbridge Island. This is kind of the one remaining park that still lives within a city’s limits within Kitsap County,” Wisniewski said.

How much does it cost to take to maintain Veterans Park is a question the Kitsap News Group repeatedly asked of the county parks department, but they never responded.

Meanwhile, the responsibility for responding to homeless people who might return to set up encampments in the park will remain with the county. Wisniewski said the county is now in a better position to respond should encampments show up again in the park.

County staff are monitoring the park daily, Wisniewski said. Brush has been cleared to allow authorities to monitor the area more easily. The county also hired a specialist to contact homeless people who set up camp in the park and help direct them to other housing options. There is also a procedure in place that if a homeless person living in the park has turned down alternative housing services, that person can be trespassed from the park and removed by the sheriff’s department, he added.

Meanwhile, Garrido is interested in having volunteers monitor the park. “We have stewardship groups for many of our parks,” she said. “This is a volunteer group of citizens who work directly with the parks department. This would be a great park to have a group of people who would participate in walk-throughs on occasion and make sure everything is copacetic.”

Garrido could not explain why a stewardship group had not already been set up at Veterans Park, given the volume of concerns the city has raised about prior encampments. “I don’t know.Maybe we just didn’t see the need until it was very, very, very obvious,” she said.

Putaansuu insists that even though the city declined the park offer, the county should not treat Veterans Park any differently.

“We are all taxpayers, even the residents of Port Orchard,” Putaansuu said. “[The county] has a more robust parks and recreation division than the city does. They are a much larger entity than we are … and we deserve to have that park be treated no differently than any other park in the county.”