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May 26, 2017

A View on Economic Development

When I ran for the City Council one of the main questions that was asked at the candidate’s forum was, “What specifically will you do to promote economic development.”  I have to admit that I was not as prepared for the question as I could have been.  It was fortunate that Councilman Krebs bailed me out, pointing out efforts that I was part of as a planning commissioner in streamlining our zoning regulations to make it easier to understand what you can or can’t do with property in town.  I think the answer went over well in the room and is a good example of what cities can do to help foster economic development.

Another question during that campaign came from a business owner who asked if I supported the creation of a city program to loan money to store owners to improve the look of their stores.  He wanted to see the city help make downtown look attractive and help businesses be successful.  I told him that was not the role of the city - we had our hands full with public safety like the police and fire department.  I don’t think he liked my answer.

In hindsight, the questions illustrate what the real issue of the role of cities in economic development--what should the city do to help increase the economic vitality of a community and what it should not do.  This is one of the biggest lessons that I was taught during my tenure on the city council, one that helped nudge me out of the city political scene.  What should the city be doing to help the economy?  

The City should only look to help in economic development in generalities, not specifics.  For example, helping create a sewer plan that gives developers their costs before they build and their bill after they sell is a good use of city resources in encouraging development.  Changing zoning or building restrictions to encourage a developer to build a particular enterprise is wrong minded.  There should always be the question, does this help in the general sense or is it to benefit a specific entity.

There has been an effort to build a city website to promote tourism, while this would be a good idea for private interests, it does not make sense as a city pursuit.  City entities are subject to public reporting and use of funds restrictions that could hamper the ability of the city to run this kind of endeavor.  This would be better if it were a private effort and the City could allocate funds through the lodging tax with the support of the motels in town (support that it has not had).  The interests that are pursuing this are narrow, not the community as a whole.

The City should be looking to do things that help economic development through planning that would benefit the entire community.  For example, seeking development of the downtown area through the use of public space and looking at the feasibility of what development could be successful would be a good thing.  This is something that individuals wouldn’t do nor should do - the public spaces are owned by the whole community.  The current downtown feasibility study would do just that.

The City has leaders that have been be working with County and State governments to help with infrastructure and transportation needs.  The building of the walking trail and securing a bridge for the Foothills Trail between Enumclaw and Buckley is the kind of project that builds economic opportunities.  Helping alleviate traffic headaches and facilitate movement helps with economic development.  Both are examples of things we can’t do alone and working with other levels of governments benefits our community and our economics.

The most important economic development tool for a city is in its vitality and security.  Having clean streets, good parks, a top notch police department and a capable fire and medical services create a strong economy.  This is the economic development responsibility of the City, to create a vibrant community where businesses can be successful, not creating policies and providing resources to help specific businesses be successful.

Fri, May 26, 2017 | link          Comments

March 29, 2017

A Perspective on the Enumclaw Stormwater Issue

I prepared an article Offering perspective on proposed stormwater utility for the Courier Herald that ran in the paper in December.  I was asked to cut it down for the paper, here's the complete article....

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Enumclaw has been working on the City's Budget and this year's discussions have presented some interesting choices for next year. The most controversial is the idea of forming a stormwater utility sometime in 2017. It's called an enterprise fund and it would charge fees for a specific purpose, in this case managing stormwater.

The first question that many have is, why is stormwater a thing? Simply, stormwater is the rainwater that drains from our homes, parking lots, and other surfaces where it does not naturally soak in and go away. You may think this is not a big deal. That's what rain does. It comes down all the time, runs down the street, flows into the sewer, and fills the river--nobody cares. Problems arise when it collects to excess in our streets and causes neighborhood flooding, when it infiltrates our sewer system and is run through the wastewater treatment plant, and when it picks up pollutants in places like parking lots.

In Enumclaw, our stormwater runs into Newaukum and Boise Creeks ending up in the White and Green Rivers. We all have an interest in protecting these waters from pollutants like petroleum based chemicals, metals and other things that harm fish, wildlife and ultimately people. For example, parking lot runoff with anti-freeze, oil and transmission fluid in it. This is why we have governmental regulation of stormwater. This is not new. Congress passed the Clean Water Act in 1972.

In August of 2015, the City received a letter from the Department of Ecology ordering us to develop a stormwater plan to comply with the law, something that other communities have already addressed. This means we have to manage the city's stormwater in a manner consistent with state and federal law. If we do not comply we could be sanctioned and are subject to other administrative penalties. This could mean fines, revocation of our wastewater and stormwater permits, and/or a moratorium on building permits; any of these would have a detrimental effect on our community. The City has been working to develop and implement a plan to comply with the order since then. This is why stormwater is a thing now.

Currently, we are spending nearly $400,000 every year on stormwater management and anticipate having to continue with this expenditure indefinitely. It is the cost of operating under the regulations now and into the foreseeable future. We now have a Stormwater Plan and have undertaken a number of other efforts to maintain our permits and be in compliance with Ecology's order. To see the whole stormwater program, you can search "Enumclaw Stormwater Plan" online. We have been able to cover the costs out of available funds in our street maintenance account. This was worked through the Public Works Committee that I served on last year with Councilman Hogan and Dickson and was passed by the full council last December.

This was a good decision because we've are now in compliance with the order from the Department of Ecology. However, if we continue to try to cover the cost of stormwater compliance out of our general fund (the regular city budget), we will end up shortchanging other parts of the budget. We could see more cuts to services like the police, pool, parks, senior center and other social programs. It could reduce funds for economic development initiatives. Since the recession hit in 2008, I know the City has reduced the number of employees and made services as efficient as possible. We've stretched budgets as far as we can and I am concerned that this is not sustainable.


What are the options?


We could continue to fund the efforts out of the street fund. That has already shortchanged efforts to improve streets. We are going to need every street dollar we can to address other regulations and improve roads. We have been able to capture state Department of Transportation funds to get some improvements that you can see around town, like we did on the Semanski, Griffin and 410 overlay projects. You'll note that those projects have sidewalk improvements, especially intersections and corners that were improved to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act. We are required to make these upgrades on any streets that we improve moving forward. The result is that it adds to the cost of improving our streets--keeping things the way they are would take funds away from streets to fund the stormwater issue.


We could raise property taxes. We have the ability to raise funds under our banked capacity (property taxes that we could collect, but don't). That seems like it would be the logical place to look at for additional revenue. However, I believe this would have homeowners bear a higher proportion of the cost than non-residential properties, which raises fairness issues. Not only would the homeowner bear a disproportionate share of the cost of solving the problem, they would see a reduction of city services as well.

We could create a Stormwater Utility to fund the program that was put forward in the budget. We heard from the Chamber of Commerce that they are opposed to the idea. I understand concerns that many businesses in town have large buildings and parking lots that will have to pay more because they create more stormwater than an average home. However, if we went with the stormwater utility, the service fees would be based on what a property is contributing to the problem, which would be fair. Homeowners would pay a flat fee across the city and non-residential properties would be charged based on how much run-off the property creates.

We are not alone. Every city in the state has had to deal with the issue and the solution for the cities in the area has been to create a Stormwater Utility. In fact, Sumner has had one in place since 1986. Here in Enumclaw, the rate would be around $4-$5 per household per month. The details would be worked out over the next year and throughout the process we will need to be mindful of the impact on our homeowners and businesses and ask for their input along the way. There could even be changes in regulation with a Trump Administration in Washington, DC, but the Seattle Times is reporting that any changes from a new EPA could be delayed in the courts for years, so hoping the issue will go away isn't an option.

Imposing new taxes or fees is always a tough decision, one that shouldn't be taken lightly. For example, I had reservations about the sales tax increase for streets because sales taxes are not related to transportation costs. I also raised concerns about taking on debt for that purpose as well, but we all agreed that we need to fix our streets. The majority of Council and the voters chose to move forward with the sales tax increase and just like there is a need to fix our streets, there is a need to address the stormwater issue. My perspective is that when they ask for funds, it should be related to what contributes to the problem which is why I believe the Stormwater Utility may be the better option. Any decision they make will be difficult and should include all of our citizens in an open and forthright conversation moving forward.

During my service on the Council, when confronted with a controversial issue or tough decision, I always liked to look to the long term effect. Will we look at what they did ten or twenty years from now and think, "They were smart to make that decision."  You can offer input to the Council, to the Mayor, or Administration in person at any of the meetings or by sending a letter or an e-mail, the contact information is available on the City's website.

Wed, March 29, 2017 | link          Comments

2017.05.01
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