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Valley council candidates Robertson, Grafos, Pace, Foote respond

Contenders address newspaper questionnaire

Here is the third in a series of reports in which Spokane Valley City Council candidates address issues in their own words.

All the candidates were asked the same questions. They were given a maximum of 1,100 words, to be distributed as they pleased.

This installment features the city’s most crowded council race, which pits two retired ministers, a teacher and a developer.

One of the retired ministers is incumbent City Councilman Ian Robertson, 72. He was appointed Aug. 4 to fill the position Councilman Steve Taylor vacated on June 30.

Robertson’s best-known challenger is developer Dean Grafos, 66, who has been one of the leading critics of the city’s Sprague-Appleway Revitalization Plan. Until recently, Grafos also was a major contributor to a now-failed disincorporation drive.

The other challengers are retired minister Ed Pace, 62, and substitute teacher Ed Foote, 36.

The Aug. 18 primary election was over when a special filing period for Robertson’s position was conducted in late August, so the race may be decided by a plurality instead of a majority.

State law says whoever gets the most votes gets the job. No runoff election is required.

Question: What in your education or experience qualifies you to represent Spokane Valley residents?

Foote: I have spent almost my entire life, except for 1½ years, living in Spokane Valley. All of my schooling has been done in Spokane Valley and in the Spokane area. I am a certified teacher, and that means that I work with the youth of Spokane Valley every work day, and their parents indirectly, as a substitute teacher. I voted for incorporation as soon as I was old enough to vote, and when it came up to vote. I ran for the city council during the first election, along with 48 others. I’ve run twice for 4th legislative district state House of Representatives position 2, which got me to ring doorbells, meet and talk to voters anywhere I could, and talk about and research the issues that are on voters’ minds. I am now a precinct committee officer for my precinct, 4429, as their Democratic representative at the most local level.

Grafos: I’ve lived in the Valley almost 40 years, married into a Valley family and raised two children in this special place. I’m an Eastern Washington University grad, a real estate broker and have many years of successful experience in land development, construction and sustainable business models, in addition to community and church work. I am invested in this community personally and professionally as a tax-paying business and property owner and employer. I am dedicated to maintaining our quality of life and economic vitality.

Pace: Representatives/ councilpersons must be able to listen, study, deliberate, and stand firm.

Listen: As a pastor I excelled at listening to folks going through crisis and facilitating resolution and healing. I also became very good at listening to entire congregations and either determining the consensus of the whole group or identifying and understanding the various factions.

Study: As an English major (B.A. from EWU), a graduate student (M.Div. from Trinity Lutheran Seminary), and a technical marketing professional (Hewlett-Packard) I became skilled at wading into complex problems, studying them, and articulating the essence of the issues involved.

Deliberate: From serving in leadership roles in the U.S. Army (1st lieutenant), electronics industry (supervisor and product manager), and in churches (pastor), I developed exceptional skills in meeting leadership, group problem solving, facilitating process improvement, and resolving conflicts.

Standing Firm: As a pastor, I excelled at standing firm once a decision was made, even in the face of severe, angry criticism.

Robertson: In education, I received my diploma in theology from Nazarene Theological College, Manchester, England. I received my Bachelor’s of Divinity from Nazarene Theological Seminary, Kansas City, Mo. I was certified in production and inventory management from American Production and Inventory Control Society.

I have led nonprofit organizations for 50 years. I formed a non-profit organization to operate the HUB Regional Sports Center. I served on the Planning Commission since the incorporation of Spokane Valley, participating in the development of our comprehensive plan, the associated development regulations, and the Sprague-Appleway Revitalization Plan.

Q: As a City Council member, would you vote to place disincorporation before voters? Why, or why not?

Foote: I wouldn’t vote to place disincorporation before voters, because that was already done back in 2006, and voters turned it down in bigger numbers than those who voted against incorporation in 2002. It must be acknowledged that a large number of Spokane Valley residents are upset over higher taxes since incorporation, especially those imposed by the County, but putting the city into receivership (if disincorporation passes) makes no sense to me.

Editor’s note: Spokane Valley residents have never voted on disincorporation. There were unsuccessful petition drives in 2003, 2005 and this year.

Grafos: If elected, I’ll help shape a sustainable budget and influence the direction and tone of this city to better serve the community. Valley citizens and businesses have often been marginalized, met with confrontation, obstructionism, and arrogance. Their frustration takes many forms, notably the movement to place disincorporation on the ballot. Over 40 percent of the registered voters signing the petitions is a true “report card” on citizen dissatisfaction. Signing the petition for a RE-VOTE is a perfect example of our democracy in action.

Since last summer, however, unfavorable annexation actions resurfaced in Washington making disincorporation a risky option. Thus, I won’t put this issue on the ballot unless bankruptcy looms. I’ll work for a well-managed, business-friendly community that fuels job creation and appreciates its citizens. I am committed to working within the system to rein in explosive spending and change the tone at City Hall.

Pace: Yes, the residents of Spokane Valley should vote on disincorporation. Any time public concern over an issue rises to the level that petitions are circulated, signs sprout like weeds, and folks won’t stop talking about it – public study, debate, and popular vote are needed.

Robertson: I would not. My life has been one of bringing people together to meet goals. Disincorporation would split the community. I am a team player. Together, we need to develop the vision and goals that reflect all of our local ambitions and values. As a planning commissioner, I have listened carefully, read, and weighed every side of each issue. We have to start with a plan for the future. Now let’s work together to make Spokane Valley the City of Choice for all of us. “If we put the present against the past, we will lose the future.” –Winston Churchill.

Q: Would you keep or overturn the Sprague-Appleway Revitalization Plan? What about letting voters decide? Do you think they would confirm the plan or scrap it?

Foote: I agree, for the most part, with the Sprague-Appleway Revitalization Plan, except for one thing: there are no plans for a future light rail track and light-rail stations at all. All of the proposed plans for a city center, with the exception of the above plan, show a light-rail track and a central station with park-and-ride space as a central component. In fact, it was the Spokane Transit Authority’s light-rail plans that first showed a city center for Spokane Valley. I think that more work needs to be done before putting the measure in front of voters, but I can’t say for sure if the plan would pass or not as is.

Grafos: Overturn. The SARP is ironically less about revitalization and more about transferring wealth from many small businesses and property owners to a select few in the U-City area through a reallocation of retail entitlements and special-interest zoning. By destroying the value of hundreds of parcels outside this area through slow-death nonconformity and down-zoning, the city hopes to force people and businesses to relocate to U-City, leaving the prosperous eastern part to wither away. It is a misuse of power. Costing almost a million dollars, this plan also includes a costly city hall and traffic revisions for the couplet, Appleway and Sprague.

I’ll never reject voter input. The voters do need, however, informed choices to accomplish revitalization where all benefit. “A rising tide lifts all boats.” As for confirmation, the consultant for the SARP said the plan would not work without a library at U-City, a proposal voters soundly rejected. I also believe, though citizen’s desire revitalization in some form, they reject spending millions for this questionable plan and new city hall. America is a free market-driven economy, not a “planned” economy.

Pace: I would vote to overturn it. But, I would push for putting it on the ballot and letting the voters decide. I believe they would scrap the plan.

Robertson: I would definitely keep it. All organizations need to have a plan for the future. As the old saying goes, “If we fail to plan, we plan to fail.” However, any plan, whether a moon-shot or enhancing our city, must be subject to midcourse corrections to meet changing circumstances and environments. Somehow we’ve forgotten that the purpose of the plan is to revitalize Sprague and Appleway, resulting in new jobs, increased property values, and exciting new opportunities for businesses. State law prohibits voters from deciding this issue. It is the responsibility of the council after receiving extensive community input.

Q: If you want to scrap the plan, how would you revitalize Sprague and reduce the number of vacant commercial buildings?

Foote: Incorporate light rail into the city center plan.

Grafos: “Where others see ugly, I see opportunity!” WinCo and the alternative school come to mind. However, the anticipated SARP and the promise of huge financial gains for select U-City properties have actually hindered more development. Scrap the plan and return to the comprehensive plan zoning which helped spur Valley growth. I pledge to work tirelessly with all entities involved for our economic future including Greater Spokane Inc., the Valley Chamber of Commerce, and other interested groups. The University City area has potential, and with properties more in line with true values and some bottom-up creativity, development will follow. The market should decide, with acknowledgement of business life spans. The Valley as a whole will benefit, once again a business-friendly, job creating community. The “new” Building and Planning Department will remove roadblocks, not create them with additional costs and delays. Our economic vitality depends on it. Again, “a rising tide lifts all boats.”

Pace: I would turn our free-enterprise system loose to revitalize Sprague naturally by:

A. Create tax and other incentives for businesses to locate along Sprague.

B. Remove restrictions that might discourage large retailers and manufacturers from locating in Spokane Valley, while still welcoming small businesses.

C. Make city government be totally customer-focused and passionate about helping businesses and property developers obtain permits, licenses, etc.

D. Give all the city’s grant money to the Chamber of Commerce and ask them to use it to recruit businesses to the Sprague area.

Robertson: Not applicable.

Q: Do you favor the city’s policy of hiring contractors whenever possible to provide municipal services? In particular, what about the city’s contract with Spokane County for police service?

Foote: I supported the incorporation of the city with the understanding that it would take care of as many services as possible, doing the best job at the lowest cost. I feel that hiring the county as the biggest contractor for many services is defeating the idea of even having a city, since so many of us Valley residents were tired of high county taxes and not receiving the most efficient services. I would like to see the city take over its own police service, which would save us $1 million a year. I support private contractors only if they do a better job at a cheaper cost.

Grafos: Yes. Well-written contractual agreements, both public and private facilitate lower costs and increase efficient use of taxpayer dollars. The sheriff’s contract with the city is a prime example. Not only do you gain access to additional available resources (such as SWAT teams) you limit liability and avoid prevailing wage rates and benefits based on like-size Washington cities most often found in Western Washington. Thus, though initial personnel costs may be lower for a short period of time with a city force, over time, much higher prevailing wages will be imposed through arbitration. Added to increased capital and equipment costs, police issues will be politicized and in control of a city manager who is not accountable to the voters. Remember the snowplow fiasco which now saddles us with six much-used state Department of Transportation dump trucks plowing our 438 miles of roads? An emergency declaration, an out of state contractor with a no-bid contract that excluded local tax-paying companies from participation in the bidding process.

Pace: Yes, as long as contractors are selected by a fair competitive process. The city should look at contracting with the county for more than police service – building permit administration and public works engineering for example.

Robertson: I’m for doing whatever needs to be done in the most cost-effective manner. Generally, private and public contractors provide better service, lower cost, and more flexibility. The contract for police services, led by Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich and Police Chief Rick Van Leuven, is an outstanding example. I have supported this direction from the beginning. Other examples that have been highly successful include Senske for parks, AAA Sweeping for street sweeping, and the YMCA for providing lifeguards and swimming instruction.

Q: The City Council passed a 6 percent telephone tax to help pay for street maintenance, but says it’s not enough. What would you like to do?

Foote: Ask the voters to approve a bond on a long-term street maintenance and repaving program, just like Spokane did.

Grafos: Road maintenance like snowplowing is a safety and quality of life issue. Prioritize the mission of each city department; insure that the operating costs and personnel associated with that department are essential to the health, welfare and safety of the public. Eliminate all nonessential spending and reallocate special funds like the over $5 million civic building fund to cover shortfalls. Raising taxes before cutting the budget is irresponsible.

Pace: I am opposed to raising taxes. I would do the following:

A. Develop performance measures and goals for street traffic flow such as: same-day snow removal and pothole repair; continuous reduction of traffic accidents; continuous improvement in commuter satisfaction.

B. Instruct the city manager to meet the goals within the current budget and income level.

C. If the goals aren’t met, replace the city manager with someone who can meet them.

Robertson: Since the incorporation of our city, citizens have made it clear that streets were to be a high priority. We were receiving $2.5 million per year from the gas tax for maintenance: sweeping, plowing, sanding, and grass mowing. Annual expenses were $4.2 million. Our staff developed a budget to keep within the $2.5 million but it required excluding all residential snowplowing. I believed that this was unacceptable and, given the few ways in which cities are permitted to raise funds, supported the 6 percent telephone tax, the same tax used by all larger cities within our state.

Q: The city is running short of money for its program of full-width street repaving after sewer construction. What would you do?

Foote: I just had my street repaved two years ago, after we finally got the sewer lines to come through my neighborhood. I was afraid that they wouldn’t do full-width street repaving, but fortunately they did. What to do to continue this program? I would look at state and federal programs that could pay for the program, or look at options to have part of the money paid to Spokane County Utilities for sewer construction and service costs to go into this program.

Grafos: Again, cut the budget before imposing taxes! We must prioritize and make hard choices not lazy solutions to rein in the explosive growth of expenditures and looming deficits. The city’s population increased by about 4,970 persons over the last five years but the operating budget increased by an unsustainable and staggering $10 million per year! Painting a rosy picture of a balanced city budget when all reserve funding will be depleted in four short years is irresponsible and self-serving.

Editor’s note: City officials estimate that the general fund increased a total of $7.8 million, about 6 percent a year, from 2004 through 2009. An accounting change this year budgeted the anticipated $13.2 million general fund ending balance as though it were an expenditure. Most grant-funded capital projects are separate from the general fund.

Pace: Stop the program, freeze tax increases, and wait until city revenues increase through natural growth of the city. This means letting developers develop and letting businesses do business.

Robertson: I believe there is adequate money available for full-width paving in the general fund’s ending fund balance and/or the service level reserve fund.

Q: Spokane Valley’s best-paid employee, City Manager Dave Mercier, will earn $166,102 this year. Are city officials paid too much, too little, just enough?

Foote: Until the city can be self-sufficient and can run cheaper and more efficiently than under the county, there should be no pay raises for any elected officials. The city manager’s pay is excessive considering what the average Spokane Valley resident makes. I thought that a city manager made much less than the amount stated above. Same with other city officials. It would be nice for the voters to decide on an appropriate amount, but at the same time, I know that the city is trying to find and retain top talent in city management. Still, it would be nice to make the same amount as top city officials are making at taxpayers’ expense.

Grafos: If you add in benefits and allowances, not bad for a person who is here just a few days a month! For his level of education and experience, he is paid enough. However, for his top-down, authoritarian style of governance imposed upon this city, negatively changing the tone of this community and how the citizenry is responded to, he is paid way too much.

Pace: I don’t know. A regional salary survey should be done for all city jobs so that pay ranges are comparable to those in similar cities. An individual’s salary within his/her job’s pay range should be performance-based. The City Council should develop performance measures, set performance standards, and oversee an annual performance evaluation process for all city employees. Performance measures and standards should be based on input from city residents and businesses.

Robertson: When the city was formed, we had to borrow $50,000. Now we have cash reserves of $35 million to guard against a rainy day. Anyone who can take a city from having to borrow $50,000 to a cash balance of $35 million, when other cities and counties are eliminating jobs and cutting back services, is certainly doing his job very well. His salary represents only 0.17 percent of our present budget, and studies have shown that his salary is very competitive.

Q: Would you prefer an elected mayor instead of an appointed city manager to control the city’s day-to-day affairs, as in Spokane? How about a Spokane-style ward system for the City Council?

Foote : Spokane has had issues both with city managers and “strong” mayors. Since mayors are elected by the voters and not by seven people in the council chambers, I would prefer a mayor running day-to-day affairs. One change I would love to see is to have the city broken up by wards so that certain areas aren’t over-represented by city council members like it is now. Each area of the city should have its own city council member, someone from the neighborhood.

Grafos: Approximately $1 million in payment vouchers are approved weekly by your part-time council. Fiscal accountability, responsibility and transparency are difficult under this form of government. These vouchers are presented to the council several days prior to required approval, usually given only a cursory glance. For all practical purposes, under this form of government, the city and its agenda, direction, and priorities are dictated by the wishes of a strong city manager and a correspondingly weak city council. Thus, noninvested participants and consultants drive the community. Sharing resources and combining some departments with other local governments such as Spokane County may result in a more efficient utilization of scarce taxpayer dollars.

Pace: The mayor should control the day-to-day operations of the city through the city manager. The city manager needs to be a professional whose education and career is running cities. The mayor, on the other hand, should be a citizen who serves one or two terms and is done. The mayor should be elected directly by the city’s voters and should be the CEO of the city government and the chairperson of the City Council. It would be ideal if each neighborhood (Ponderosa, Kokomo, Midilome, etc.) and each business district (Sullivan, Sprague, Fairgrounds area, Valley Mall area, etc.) elected a representative to serve on the City Council.

Robertson: No, no! For nonprofits and governments, there needs to be separation between legislative and administrative duties. While some think the city manager runs the city, he is there to make sure the city runs effectively and efficiently, following the governing policies set by the council. Because somebody can win an election, it does not follow that he/she is a good manager of a multimillion dollar enterprise.

When you have ward systems, each ward competes with the other. My interest is not in serving one group of people but what is best for the entire City.

Q: Should Spokane Valley build a new City Hall at the University City Shopping Center, buy the building it now rents or do something else? Should it continue paying rent?

Foote: For now, Spokane Valley should continue renting its current spaces until the city center is started, then a permanent City Hall should be built as planned. We need a heart to our city, and a City Hall in the center of that heart.

Grafos: The city will deplete its reserves in about four years. We should rent, curb growth and the need for more space. We should renegotiate rental rates.

Pace: Continue paying rent.

Robertson: We need to have a plan so that we can consider long-term costs and benefits of each option. If that plan requires borrowing money through bonds or additional funds earmarked for capital improvements, then we will take that plan to the voters at that time. With the uncertainty of the economy, let’s continue to rent.

Q: What are the city’s best accomplishments?

Foote: One, that we’ve managed to survive six years as a city, when critics said that we wouldn’t have made it at all. Two, that our sense of self is still strong, that we were never part of Spokane and never will be, and that we have our own culture here. Three, that the city services are more efficient than under the county. Four, that we have a good police force out here, even if it’s under county control still. Finally, that despite all of the problems and roadblocks, there are still plenty of people who do go to City Council meetings and make their voices heard, and run for City Council.

Grafos: The park system and CenterPlace, given to the city by Spokane County.

Pace: My perception is that police coverage has increased. But, in the past six years Sprague keeps getting uglier and my property taxes have jumped up significantly.

Robertson: We know how to maintain a financially viable city even as our nation goes through the worst downtown in the economy since the Great Depression. Our safety, security and emergency planning are exemplary. We have a council and an administration that know how to work together as a team for the common good. The city has been proactive in securing outside funding for roads and parks.

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