Name: Chris Ross
Why are you running for Sammamish City Council?
With a looming financial crisis for the first time in our city’s history, it is imperative we have councilmembers that carefully select opportunities that have positive impacts on improving traffic, sustaining our infrastructure, and preserving our environment. I am the only Candidate with proven financial skills and experience to effectively address Sammamish’s emerging fiscal challenges. Community leaders and citizens have encouraged me to run for Council to help the city navigate through this critical period. I am answering a call for action to achieve our community goals while protecting the citizens from unnecessary tax burdens due to poor planning.
What do you hope to achieve?
I want to apply long term fiscal planning and transparency as an enabler to improve and sustain our operations, infrastructure and environmental character. With short term focus on budgets only, we will be constantly managing peaks and valleys in the future. This is disruptive to our taxpayers, deteriorates the city during down times, and makes it difficult to retain good city personnel necessary to drive service improvements and efficiencies. Because of this fiscal discipline, I hope Sammamish is the shining example of a city that sustains itself with little impact to the taxpayer during any economic period.
What are the Top Three issues you see as priorities?
Enhancing and updating roads within the city are needed as infrastructure continues to lag behind growth. Regional cooperation is necessary to optimize our traffic improvements.
As we manage future growth, we must work together with stakeholders to achieve innovative community design options to maximize the green character of Sammamish. City land acquisition strategies should prioritize investments protecting the tree canopy, sensitive areas, and habitats.
Sammamish faces a looming financial crisis the first time in the city’s history with projected operating deficits and escalating project cost estimates. Skillful financial analysis and management is critical under these circumstances.
What data did you rely on to help you arrive at these priorities?
From the 2016 King County Comprehensive Plan Technical Appendix D, the expected housing growth was calculated at 233,200 or 31% for 2006-2031. Our estimated population in 2016 was 61,250 or 2.9% of the county total. Applying this to housing needs, we would proportionately require a target of 6,785, However, we were able to justify a lower initial target of 4,180. Still, we are sharing a large countywide growth challenge negatively impacting traffic and our environment. On finances, the crossover point where operating expenses will exceed revenues within the next few years is a clear warning bell for our challenges ahead.
How would you solve these issues?
We cannot entirely build our way out of the traffic problem. Focusing on projects addressing safety and optimizing throughput should be our priorities. However, to take it to the next level, Sammamish and adjacent communities must work together and come up with solid regional solutions that better align with job and housing demographics generating the greatest favorable impact. Environmental regulation does not regularly achieve the desired results. Community design standards should be considered part of the permitting process. Multi-year forecasting is critical to better manage our financial resources to sustain the character of Sammamish.
Please state your view of the current state of city finances? (IE, are they solid, precarious, neutral.) Please state why you reach your conclusion.
Our finances are increasingly strained to meet our future demands.
- We are approaching a crossover point where expenses exceed revenues;
- our TIP costs are escalating with severe funding challenges;
- the TIP does not recognize operating fund transfers beginning in 2021; and
- our community is maturing and will need to find funding sources to adequately maintain our infrastructure. Coupled with this, we have significant external tax pressures such as ST3 and McCleary that impact each of us.
Do you feel a tax hike or imposition of a new tax is needed? If not, why not? If yes, why?
It would be irresponsible to consider new funding sources without first performing a careful examination and planning of the long-term priorities for the city. Once the priorities are identified, we need to carefully examine the basis of estimate for each major project to ensure the result is based on current sound assumptions and accurately reflects project scope. Also, each service should be evaluated to assess the required level of service. Through this exercise, if a funding shortage is identified, the conversation shifts to tax increases or cost reductions or a combination of both.
If a new tax is needed, what tax would you favor?
I am opposed to the B&O tax imposed on business gross receipts. The last thing we want is to make it more difficult to sustain our existing businesses and deter new business. Sales tax increases need to be at or below neighboring cities or they too may impact retail business. Utility taxes or increases to Property Tax rates should be considered as a last resort because they like Sales Tax tend to become permanent in nature and incrementally increased over time for expediency. Bond issuances to fund emerging needs for infrastructure best link taxation with public priorities.
What are some ways our city can increase revenue without raising taxes?
Increasing business volume in Sammamish is important. As a bedroom community, we have a relatively small amount of tax revenue generated from our businesses. The business community is just as anxious as the rest of us to improve the traffic situation to enable easier access to their stores or offices. We need to attract new businesses in Sammamish, especially restaurants. Also, Economic conditions will drive higher revenues from Real Estate Excise Taxes collected from the sales of homes. Finally, we should examine the user fee structure and consider increases for non-residents.
Parks and Recreation
Are more parks with ball fields needed? If yes, how would you achieve these?
The survey associated with the Land Acquisition Strategy identified passive use and preservation as the highest priorities. Less than half of those surveyed identified active use and recreation as a priority. I also found that many kids active in sports utilize fields in adjacent communities and several travel to outlying areas. There is now a process in place to prioritize projects for land acquisition. This is where acquiring land suitable for ball fields could be identified and funded with part of the $13M set aside for land acquisition. An important consideration is the recurring maintenance cost of a ball park.
East Lake Sammamish Trail: Only the Middle section, Section 2B, from the 7-11 north to Inglewood Hill Road, remains under permitting review and appeals by King County. This is the most difficult section to develop given the tight proximity of homes permitted by the County before Sammamish became a city. Please state the issues as you understand them and what your position is to resolve them.
King County purchased a Railroad right of way. Many homes were constructed before this purchase and approved before Sammamish became a city. The County requires an 18-foot-wide trail pursuant to federal design standards. Environmentally, many mature trees, wetlands, and buffers are at risk. Some property owners on the trail are losing use of their property. Alternatively, many residents view this as a jewel of our community and want it completed. To complete the trail, design compromises should be worked including narrowing trail in certain areas and re-routing where possible to reduce the negative impact on the environment and properties.
Developing the YMCA land adjacent Pine Lake Middle School is a contractual obligation to Sammamish in exchange for the YMCA’s financial contribution, program development and management of the Community Center. The City’s obligation is to develop an active use for the property, which is currently thick woods and encompassing sensitive areas. Some neighbors prefer a passive use, such as trails, to protect wildlife and the wetlands. Please state your understanding of the issues and the outcome you support.
The City’s obligation is to use the 7.25-acre property for recreational use. We have shortages of recreational property in the city. In the short run, we will continue to rely on partnerships with school districts and outcomes from the PRO Plan should drive discussion further for long term strategies. This property is highly wooded, includes two wetlands and two streams connected to the Laughing Jacobs sub-basin. This is a habitat of the Kokanee salmon. I recommend we minimize development of the property while meeting our agreement. This property is not the right place for robust recreational use.
Roads and Transportation
Council Member Tom Odell has stated Sammamish neglected road improvements for 10 years. The City today is about to receive a draft Transportation Management Plan (on July 11, after this questionnaire is due back to us). This will perhaps make recommendations for priorities in road improvements. Until then, the only “plan” is the Transportation Improvement Plan (TIP).
The TIP is available on the City’s website. Please state your opinion of the TIP projects and the cost of the projects listed in the TIP.
The TIP is a planning document that includes potential projects and capital improvement programs over a 6-year period. To qualify for grant funds, the project must be listed on the TIP. The projects listed must be prioritized before funding is identified. The growth in large project costs is not surprising. Early estimates are subject to wide variations and are refined and more accurate closer to project implementation. Many times, there aren’t similar historical projects to rely on to base the estimate and construction cycles and costs vary significantly. It is a problem however, if the city routinely underestimates projects.
Do you believe the City can pay for these projects under its current financial condition? If not, how would you suggest paying for them?
No. $165M requires funding over the 6-year period. This is the full wish list. I suggest we examine all projects with strings attached (grant money) to validate they are high priorities and make sure they are readied for execution in a timely manner. Concurrency projects are also a priority. All projects need to be reviewed to examine the basis of estimate to ensure a reasonable statement of work is being priced. With sales activity in housing market, we may increase REET revenues to support our investments. As a worst-case scenario, I would consider some level of borrowing and/or bond financing.
Issaquah-Fall City Road improvements were promised to the Klahanie area residents if they voted to annex to Sammamish. At the time, in 2014, City officials estimated the cost of this project would be about $23 million. The latest estimate is $32 million and this may rise. Do you support the current proposed design of the project, and how do you believe the City should pay for it?
We must keep our commitments to the Sammamish residents living in the Klahanie area. They approved annexation with these promises from the city. As a result, we must make this project a priority. Was the city transparent in their projection? Regardless, we must figure out how to execute on this project in a responsible manner. Like any project that has ballooning costs, we must re-examine the Statement of Work and consider design updates that reduce costs. Since this can’t be funded by impact fees, the Real Estate Excise Tax (REET) will be a primary source and grants, if any.
Sahalee Way became a highly controversial project, both in design and in cost. Initially it was promised that it would relieve congestion. However, the City’s contract traffic engineer stated it will not because Sahalee Way empties onto SR202. As a result, any improvements will be principally for safety, such as stop lights, turning lanes, bike lanes and a sidewalk on one side of the street. The project is estimated to cost $15 million-$16 million. Do you believe there is sufficient return on investment to support this cost, or do you believe the design should be modified to reduce the cost?
Even with limited resources, safety places a project on the high priority list for consideration. Prevention of injury or death is always a good return on investment. Before starting a project that has a critical safety element, the planner must examine its impact on traffic flow. If neutral, then the project should be viewed as safety only and limit to design elements necessary to protect our citizens. If the project includes elements other than safety related, it is not a good return on investment. Any opportunities to reduce scope without compromising safety gains should be considered.
What is your understanding of Concurrency and Level of Service?
The Growth Management Act requires that the City Level of Service (LOS) standards are achieved “concurrently” with development. The LOS is the operating condition of a roadway segment or intersection. LOS compares traffic volumes to carrying capacity of the roadway or intersection. Development that causes LOS to fall below the City standards is not approved. In plain English, new development must update infrastructure at the same time of development to prevent any degradation to traffic flow and intersection waiting time.
What data are you using to inform your positions on traffic management?
With so much back and forth, I want to wait until the July 10, 2017 Traffic, Transportation, and Concurrency Overview hosted by the city which is three days from now at the time of this writing. My initial reaction is that either our concurrency standards are not adequate or other elements or criteria are needed to address the growth dynamic in Sammamish. Even if we tighten standards, that may not help. Unless our neighboring cities improve their situation, we are stuck.
Certain members of the current City Council occasionally suggest assuming the two water and sewer districts into the City, so that the City government has control over all operations of the districts; all assets; all revenue (and liabilities); and the ability to set rates.
Do you support or oppose assuming control of the Northeast Sammamish Water and Sewer District? Please state your reasons for your position.
Northeast Sammamish Sewer and Water District has been recognized as having the best tasting water in the Pacific Northwest and the second best in North America by the American Water Works Association. The city argues they can reduce costs and drive efficiencies. But residents are worried that their water quality will be compromised. The Sammamish Citizens for Clean Water found a clear majority of those asked don’t want it to change. I support keeping as is because it isn’t broken. We have more important things to focus on than mess with our water.
Do you support or oppose assuming control of the Sammamish Plateau Water and sewer district? Please state your reasons for your position.
There was a dispute between Issaquah and the District over injection of contaminated storm water into the aquifer uphill from wells serving most of Sammamish. Allowing this storm water disposition enables development by the city of Issaquah. In this situation, a conflict of interest could arise where the city is balancing development with clean water. The District has a single mission to provide clean water. As such, I trust the District to care and deliver our clean water.
Storm water management is a City function. For the past 12 years, the Tamarack subdivision has had increasing storm water runoff issues from uphill development approved by the City. Residents have persistently appeared before the City Council asking for a City-funded solution. The current Council is split on (1) how to proceed), (2) whether more study is needed and (3) who should pay for resolution of these problems.
Please state your understanding of the Tamarack storm water management issues.
For over 10 years, the Tamarack subdivision has been suffering from storm water runoff from development above them. The potential resolution will cost north of $1M. Homeowners indicate that with inadequate drainage facilities and the speed and volume of runoff, the storm water simply washes over the roads carrying sediment. This issue is further complicated by the potential that downstream pipes can’t handle the additional flow when fixed. Possibility of spending money to just move the problem. As this remains unresolved, I learned from a homeowner that he was essentially unable to sell his home with this issue pending.
Please state how you would resolve the issues and who should pay for them.
First, this is a terrible situation for the owners in the Tamarack subdivision. The city simply does not have the funds on hand to take care of this. A Local Improvement District (LID) is the usual funding remedy when issues are isolated but it is unlikely to be passed. The fundamental question is whether the city should be financially responsible for this issue. Precedent setting is always a concern. If standards were inadequate, I think some partial contribution from the city is appropriate.
What other storm water management/runoff issues are you aware of?
The Zackuse Creek culvert replacement project received grant money from the county and matching funds from the city.
Over 6,100 linear feet of new storm water conveyance and water quality treatment in the Inglewood neighborhood to resolve the existing drainage problems and support future development. This was a very large project partially supported by grants.
Please state your positions on environmental issues:
- Protecting Lake Sammamish, Laughing Jacobs Lake, Pine Lake and Beaver Lake.
Lake Sammamish is the gateway to many rivers and lakes. The Kokanee salmon live in fresh water and don’t migrate to salt water value this lake. Laughing Jacobs is a key tributary to Lake Sammamish carrying Kokanee, Chinook, Coho, and Cutthroat trout. Pine Lake and Beaver lakes are habitats for Largemouth bass, rainbow trout, yellow perch, and Brown bullhead. These species are so valuable to our region and rely on us to protect their ecosystem.
- Protecting wetlands and streams.
I am very concerned about protecting wetlands and streams. They are critical to balance the ecosystem and sustain habit. Wetlands recharge groundwater supplies and trap flood waters. They also filter and recharge drinking water and provide habitat for diverse wildlife populations. Streams absorb and gradually releases nutrients, organic matter, and stream flow downstream. These headwaters support fish and wildlife species. Like wetlands, they help preserve water quality and lessen the impacts of flooding.
- Preserving trees.
Preserving trees is so important to our city. They have many valuable benefits such as supporting clean air, clean water, flood and erosion control, and protecting wildlife habitats. Interestingly it has several economic benefits. The Christian Science Monitor reports that people are attracted to homes and businesses near trees. For example, property values are 7 percent to 25 percent higher for houses surrounded by trees. Shoppers spend up to 13 percent more at stores near green landscapes. Preserving our trees is essential for maintaining the green character of Sammamish.
Is the City doing enough, too much or not enough?
The city places the environment as a high priority. For example, the city implemented the strictest tree ordinance in the area. The city however must examine the effectiveness of regulations intended to preserve our environment to ensure we are achieving the desired results.
Any Other Issues You Wish To Address
Please briefly identify any other issues that you wish to address.
Fiscal responsibility is not mentioned by too many candidates. Fiscal responsibility is not about neglecting our city and providing the minimum. I want a first-class city with amenities and character appealing to all ages and cultures. To achieve and sustain this vision, we must be proper stewards of our financial resources and make the right choices to avoid wasting taxpayer dollars on bad investments. We must identify our priorities and long-term requirements first, before we shift the conversation to affordability and funding. This allows us to assess the right balance of taxes and investments our citizens value.