All eight candidates for Sammamish City Council vowed last night that they would not raise taxes, but nonetheless most of them endorsed a host of new spending programs.
A few expressed fiscal caution about new programs and only one called out endorsement of new debt bonds for road infrastructures as “not free.”
This was perhaps the highlight of the only forum for all eight Council candidates for the Nov. 7 election. Eight people are running for four positions. Ballots are mailed to voters Oct. 18.
No new taxes
Sammamish’s operating budget is growing and revenue is still predominately reliant on property taxes until the Town Center is fully built out, a process that will take several years.
Council candidates John Robinson (Position 7), Chris Ross (5), Karen Moran (3) and Mark Baughman (1) each expressed concerns over the budget and offered ideas to control costs.
But when it came to questions whether they support bonds for roads, Ross, Moran, Robinson and Karen Howe (3), Rituja Indapure (5) and Pam Stuart (7), each did. Baughman (pronounced Boff-man) pushed back.
“A bond is not free,” he said. “We still have to pay for it somehow.” If the operating fund can’t support a bond, Baughman said issuing bonds may mean raising taxes. A bond issue for roads might be put to the voters, who, Indapure and others said, have reached the point of tax fatigue because of King County and Sound Transit tax votes and the looming impact of the state funding for schools, known as the McCleary court decision.
Indapure suggested pursuing grants as well, but in fact Sammamish already does this. She, and others, point to future revenues that should come from the completion of the Town Center and its commercial/office components.
Robinson, Ross and Baughman emerged as the most prolific advocates of cutting costs, in some cases, via staff cuts through attrition.
But Stuart pointed out that recent staff growth in part comes from converting consultants to staff positions and the increased need in city services.
Howe presented a conflicting view on taxes.
“I will not raise taxes,” she said. “However, I don’t like being a one trick pony,” a reference to the reliance on property taxes. “I’d like to find new revenue sources.” She named the potential for retail taxes and increasing the REET, or Real Estate Excise Taxes. “Is there an opportunity there, potentially?
The REET is paid when the home is sold. Council Member Don Gerend has been advocating since 1999 to double the REET, and was shot down every time he brought it up.
On her website, Howe lists seven potential new fees and taxes.
Howe also advocated growing partnerships and state and federal grants.
Despite the no new taxes pledge, here are the programs the candidates supported in whole or in part:
- A dedicated senior center, or a center for seniors and teens, or new senior programs;
- Increasing road improvement expenditures;
- Creating a human services program (see below);
- Hiring an in-house city attorney (as a way of reducing the contract costs to the current, outside counsel);
- An internal bus transportation system;
- More bike lanes and walking paths;
- Making the Emerald Necklace a reality;
- Hiring a full-time arborist;
- Adopting an urban forestry plan, with an annual tree planting program, one current Council member attending the forum later suggested this needs to include planting money trees to pay for all the other programs.
Sammamish currently has a human services coordinator to work with programs from the region, but the distinction in the proposal by the candidates—notably Inadpure—is that there are no services Sammamish provides to its own residents, such as teen drug abuse counseling.
The Emerald Necklace is a proposal to ring Sammamish with greenbelt, not only for habitat for also for walking and bike paths. This requires land acquisition and development costs.
Traffic and transportation was identified by the City Council as the No. 1 priority and the candidates offered up similar solutions: autonomous vehicles, more bike lanes, including some off-street, more road pavement and improving traffic flow through technology.
Howe proposed that traffic lights be coordinated. Baughman pointed out Sammamish already does this, with the intelligent Transportation System, although flawed and still being adjusted.
A multi-modal system (vehicles, bicycles, bus, walking) was also supported by the candidates.
Funding must come based on priorities (Ross) and data-driven information (Stuart).
“We look at safety first, we fund it. If it’s compliant, we fund it,” said Ross. “I don’t like sales tax, it makes us non-competitive to our competitors. I don’t like B&O or utility taxes. It really comes down to a bond.
“We have to really, really look at our long-term plan,” he said. “[Traffic] concurrency supports new growth. We might front money and get a pay back. Infrastructure must be part of our long-term plan. How in the next 10 years do we pay for this? We’re not going to let Sammamish degrade, that’s for sure.”
Ross, who has made finance his signature issue, said financing must be based on long-term planning. He opposes any tax hike.
Robinson said governments tend to “ . . . overspend. Sammamish can do better. We need to take a close look at how we spend. Sammamish needs to be a good steward of tax dollars. Basic principles of accounting are you don’t overspend your revenue.”
Robinson said the staff headcount has grown 40 per cent, and should hold back through attrition to reduce staff by 10 per cent..
“I don’t think we need to be jumping to a new tax,” said Stuart, who is Robinson’s opponent. “We just got through talking about things to do. All of this requires staff, projects require city staff.
“Staff growth was converting consulting to employees. We spend less than half of Issaquah, even less than Redmond per capita. We want to keep things in balance. We don’t want to see a reduction in city level of services. Forty percent of the budget is for police and fire. We should not cut these.”
Baughman called for cutting the operating budget by $300,000 per year. This puts off the cross-over point (at which deficit spending occurs) to 2025, he said.
East Lake Sammamish Trail
Asked how the disputes between the County, City and property owners along the East Lake Sammamish Trail might be resolved, the consensus was a new round of mediation. As with this long-running, controversial issue, there were some strong responses from the candidates.
“Get King County to get back with the residents and get a solution,” said Moran.
“We can all agree there will be a trail,” said her opponent, Howe. “Mediation, just work it through.”
“It’s a mess but king County has dropped the ball,” said Ritchie.
“I would love the opportunity to sit down with the right people,” said Baughman, Ritchie’s opponent.
“I’m already trying to get people back to the table without having to go to court,” said Stuart.
“It’s outrageous what King County has been trying to do to some of the homeowners,” said Robinson, Stuart’s opponent. “Is there a way for the City to help defend these folks through mediation?”
“It’s unbelievable what the County is doing,” said Ross. “What about their moral right? Homeowners are giving up so much but County isn’t budging.”
“The best way would be to mediate,” said Indapure, Ross’ opponent. “I can’t imagine what the homeowners are going through.”
During the long evening when the candidates repeated themselves and each other on traffic and trees, a few new ideas broke through:
- Howe and Indapure both claimed the need for shared, local workspace for small businesses and home-based workers, which could also keep drivers off the main arterials during peak hours. Howe voiced the need for just simple conference rooms.
- Changing driver behavior is an idea that Robinson brought up as a different approach to the traffic problem, citing the success of incentivizing drivers to leave their cars at home. Pam Stuart said that major employers were not likely to change their schedules to accommodate Sammamish drivers, however several candidates said throughout the evening, “We can’t build our way out . . .” of the traffic problem indicating that new ideas are needed.
Problem-solving through technology was an area where the candidates were able to separate themselves a bit. Howe brought up her experience with “many, many startups,” and as a tech exec and CEO, and was the first to mention “ . . . planning now for autonomous vehicles.”
Indapure has a vision of Sammamish as a technology “hub,” an inspirational example of a city using technology to solve problems. Robinson raised the basic issue of faster, more reliable internet service. Stuart cited her technical background in mechanical engineering and years of experience working in cyber security and a need for data-driven decisions.
Baughman was more skeptical, pointing out, “Technology is great, but you can’t depend on it.”
By Scott Hamilton with contributions from Jen Baisch.