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Cities Stand Together in the “New Normal”

Nov 05, 2009

by Lydia Heard, VIA’s Urban Planner

On October 14th, a Mayor and Managers Summit was held in Redmond, organized by NextGen Today, in partnership with the attending communities, and hosted by Redmond Mayor John Marchione and Kirkland City Manager David Ramsay. The attendees were representatives of towns and cities ranging from 1,000 to 85,000 residents, from strong mayor to mayor-council-manager governance, from 85% residential base (Maple Valley) to twice as many jobs as residents (Redmond). Some had administrations with paid staff support; others had mayors who essentially volunteer their terms of civic service and receive a stipend for their labors. All were facing similar and urgent challenges and seemed truly hungry for the opportunity to hear from their fellow civic leaders what issues they were dealing with, and the solutions and best practices that they might share.

Focus on Funding
The morning session was titled “Navigating the Turbulent Waters” and began with attendees describing where they felt their city budgets were – above water, treading water, or underwater. Many were trying to find funding for capital projects (infrastructure). Funding was uppermost on everyone’s minds. There was much discussion about I-1033 along with the worst-case assumption (at the time) that it would pass, and that voter tax referendums are now the “New Normal.” There was dismay over the raiding of the Public Works Trust Fund this year to make up state budget shortfalls. There was stated interest in asking the legislature, once again, to change the constitution to allow for TIF (Tax Increment Financing) funding for infrastructure, affordable housing and transportation. There was much discussion of Levy Lid Lifts (involving the 2001 limit on property tax increases) to make up budget shortfalls. There was talk about local Tax Benefit Districts, and local car tab taxes (MVET).

The New Normal, it was generally agreed, was a move away from voters as “citizens” to voters as “consumers,” who are more likely to vote to tax themselves for specific local benefits rather than for a more general, widespread common good. This seems to entail a move away from general funds towards specific funding levies. Voters will be more likely to vote for tax measures for visible, tangible benefits such as Parks and Public Safety – but who wants to pay for things like “Administration” or such an esoteric good as “Planning”? Each Tax District represents a new bureaucracy with its own costs. Each election for a voter referendum generates its own costs. How are the elections that will be necessary in the New Normal to be funded? The general agreement was that the present funding structures – from property taxes, sales taxes, B&O – are not sustainable. There is a need for long-term funding structures, and that will require state legislative attention.

Smaller cities are pressed to create partnerships with each other, to consolidate services, to put services into a separate taxing district. This causes some consternation over preserving local identity – but cities are not the services they provide; they are the embodiment of a shared local vision of aspirations for the future. Partnerships, rather than special districts, may provide economies of scale while retaining a sense of local control. There are different models for consolidation. In this gathering the civic leaders expressed a desire to learn from each other what they have done in this regard, perhaps in workshops to share best practices.

Local Community Vision: Transportation and Land Use
The afternoon sessions dealt with transportation issues from the statewide scale of connecting cities, as addressed by WSDOT, to transportation and land use visions, practices and innovations at the local and regional scale. WSDOT is focused on providing connections between cities; many planned improvements to this end were left unfunded when the 2007 RTID (Regional Transportation Investment District) failed. Rural communities have a sense of inequities from the PSRC 2040 vision for growth. Smaller communities such as Maple Valley, Black Diamond and Carnation band together to buck this perceived trend and are working to put together their own commuter rail line.

Where statewide responsibilities leave off, local governments require a vision and a strategy for what they want to achieve. Nothing can be done without funding, but the danger of a focus on narrow funding channels is in loss of vision and of larger planning issues. Communities and cities have their own context for a vision of land use that then sets the context for highway and transportation improvements.

Redmond, for example, was once a single-family bedroom community that was required to become a growth center under the GMA. They invested in the infrastructure downtown, to encourage development there. They have a vision for a better housing to jobs balance and for diversity in housing choices. They also have a vision for overall connectivity and for the eventual arrival of Sound Transit, and it is part of their planning. They have prepared for dense centers around proposed stations and are ready for it to happen. Redmond also organized as one large traffic concurrency zone in order to accommodate a citywide bicycle network.

Parking Management is also an issue. Strategies such as lowering parking requirements, giving developers the option of providing transit passes instead of parking, using shared parking arrangements, and other tools that the different communities are trying were discussed. SeaTac offered a land use test case. They have two transit stations going in, along with a huge demand for airport parking, making surface parking lots more lucrative than other commercial or retail uses. They have to subsidize retail in order to promote mixed-use development around the transit stations, which are there to serve the airport rather than the community. Parking, land use and transportation overlap and require a strategy that changes over time.

The issue of Transportation Impact Fees came up. They can only be used to pay for vehicle infrastructure; how might that funding be used to pay for bicycle and pedestrian facilities? Redmond has done something very innovative in this regard. Instead of Transportation Impact Fees, they charge Mobility Impact Fees and have developed Mobility Units to measure charges and credits. For example, if a developer puts in bicycle infrastructure, they get back some mobility credits to offset mobility fees. It’s never been tried before and is something of an experiment. So far, no one has challenged it.

The challenges faced by cities in the New Normal, even condensed into the discussions of a single day, seem staggering. Questions of funding ruled the day; but vast reserves of resourcefulness and innovation were very evident. Land use and transportation, tools such as parking management, transportation concurrency, commute trip reduction, service partnerships, and entirely new innovations through merely substituting “mobility” for “transportation” provided  much to work with. The greatest benefit among civic leaders seemed to be the recognition that, in sharing the issues they face, they are also sharing potential solutions – and not bearing the burdens entirely alone.