Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Waterfront Access, Taxation and Economic Stimulus

There has been much discussion recently about the Waterfront Access project (and proposed development), taxation (I think there should be discussion) and betterment of the City. The following are excerpts of my remarks on these matters that I have recently posted on

Issue #1) Berm Access Improvements

The action approved by a majority of city council was to provide a PORTION of the funding for the road/access improvements through the railroad berm. There is no city funding going to directly support any development activity by Gramor.
The road/access improvements are necessary, regardless of any/what/when development occurs at the waterfront. At some point in our lifetime, the waterfront will be developed. In order for the waterfront to be developed, there needs to be adequate and safe north/south access through the berm.
The key reason the City must move forward with these access improvements now is that the Port of Vancouver and BNSF are pressing forward with rail upgrades. I am to understand that BNSF has indicated there will be no further work allowed in their right-of-way (disrupting rail commerce), anytime in the foreseeable future. In other words, now or never.
I submit that public access to our waterfront is important enough to take advantage of this window of opportunity that is available...for the long-term future of the waterfront, regardless of who ultimately develops it, and what is developed. Frankly, it's too bad our federal railroad isn't more cooperative about allowing work to occur through the berm. I suppose it's understandable that they don't want to disrupt rail traffic...and our economy will appreciate that...but having to complete the access improvements now had obviously put the City is a bit of predicament about finding money sooner than later.

Issue #2) Funding of the Access Improvements

I had expressed reservations several times in discussions at Council about City Manager's proposed funding.The short story is that construction of improved roadway access through the railroad berm to support the density of development on the waterfront that is visioned on that 26+ acres is the tune of an estimated $33 million. The City Manager was able to find $8 million readily available from road/utility money buckets. Graymor (the developer) agreed to kick-in the same amount of money that the City could come up with...$8 million. With additional State, Federal and BNSF monies, there was still a 'gap' of $7.5 million.
Fact is, I'm still bothered by the fact that City Staff felt compelled to find the additional 'gap' funding. Why not let the developers take care of that? After all, it's a measly $7.5 million, in comparison to the hundreds of millions the same developer will be investing in the project. After some back-and-forth with Staff, I was reminded that we are talking specifically about a) public access through the railroad berm, and b) the developer is spending an additional $60 million to build-out the public infrastructure on the property itself. Lastly, the 'gap' funding as finally proposed by the City Manager is manageable. The $7.5 million will be bonded for (because the money is needed now for the construction of the access), and the debt service on the bonds will be paid by REET and money from the Pavement Management Program.
I will be working to restore the REET money to the Neighborhood Traffic Safety Alliance and Parks, as well as restoring full funding (in the least) for pavement management.

Issue #3) Funding of Other City Services and Taxes

Interesting to me that there has been little discussion about Council raising utility taxes, as well as garbage taxes. Is it that citizens in Vancouver don't mind paying more taxes? Is it that citizens in Vancouver believe the City is run efficiently and more taxes are necessary? Is it that citizens want more services from the City? Was it the masterful job of the City Manager to put public safety (police and fire) in the line-of-fire of budget cuts, unless taxes were raised?

Maybe I shouldn't be so concerned about raising taxes anymore...

A majority of city council approved of increases in utility and garbage taxes to generate approximately $4.2 million in new revenues. With a gun to our temple, the City Manager laid it out that if no new taxes were approved, this $4.2 million would come out of the hides of our police and fire departments --- the other city departments simply couldn't sustain such a cut. The city's public safety departments were USED to twist the arm of Council. Some said 'Uncle' and some didn't.

My position: In 2007, the City spent $121.4 million in general funds. This $4.2 million in new taxes represents about 3.5% of the annual operating budget. Really?!? Each and every city department couldn't find 3.5% in cost savings and efficiencies to stave-off tax increases? Remember, 3.5% is 3.5 cents on every dollar.

My position: Our current economic turmoil aside, the City needs to get serious about prioritization of services, sustainable funding for services, and really creating an 'open for business' environment. There is a lot of lip-service paid to 'open for business' by those who have never had to run a business, or even work on the private-side. Without such a perspective, or with a guaranteed check every month, it's easier to raise taxes and fees of all sorts. I've recently been made aware that another business is leaving Vancouver for the more friendly confines of another city in Clark County.

I'd like to see the City (and City Council) discuss a restructuring of government and a reconsideration of tax/fee issues like the business license fee and head tax, impact fees, utility taxes.

I will advocate for the following actions (and possibly others) to stimulate economic growth and jobs in our community:#1) Remove the business head tax, #2) Eliminate traffic impact fees and concurrency analysis, #3) Reduce utility taxes, specifically for business, #4) Revisit the Cable Franchise Fee, #5) Reduce utility taxes on Senior Citizens and others that qualify as 'low income'; #6) Reduce/eliminate park impact fees; #7) Create a Utility Tax District that allows for each and every property to pay a minimal and proportional tax for road maintenance. Tax to be based on the number of trips generated by the property (for example, a homeowner might pay $5/month, whereas McDonalds might pay $500/month); #8) Create a Metropolitan Parks District (or similar), where the voters decide if and how much to support parks/recreation/trails. By taking Parks out of the city's general fund, that general fund money would then be used to beef-up staffing in Police and Fire; #9) Ask the voters to consider supporting bonds to pay for updating/new fire facilities. Most of the fire houses need upgrading in order not to crumble in an earthquake. How much sense does that make to have inadequate fire stations???; 10) Work with the County Commissioners to further combine and reduce overlap of services, resulting in further operational efficiencies; 11) Formulate a business advisory council to provide recommendations and feedback to the Mayor of Vancouver.

Issue #4) Difference between Me and the Mayor (coming)

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