Q&A: Dennis Hession, running for Spokane City Council president
1. Why do you feel that you are the best candidate?
I see the need for a strong and effective Council President. I have the skills, personal commitment and experience to fill that need. To be effective and successful in this position you must know and understand government, especially city government and the role of the City Council, its members and the role of the President. You should have City Council experience and demonstrable leadership roles on boards and commissions in the private sector, in nonprofits and particularly in government. You should possess the skills of a mediator and the skills and experience to help the council make good decisions.
2. What is your top priority and how specifically would you work to achieve your top priority?
To work with my fellow council members and the Mayor to create an economic atmosphere which leads to new economic life for our city and employment for our people by promoting a pro-growth and development agenda and by reenergizing the city’s relationship with the business community. We do this in two ways:
1. By providing inspirational leadership and connection to our citizens to impress that the City of Spokane is “open for business”, and
2. By developing a seamless mechanism to process permits and plan review requests and zoning changes such that the reputation of the city is one of a partner and not an impediment to growth.
Equally important is to insure that our citizens receive the best possible services, at least at their current level, without increasing taxes.
BUDGET AND TAXES
3. Given the expected $7 million shortfall between the revenue the city expects in 2012 and the amount needed to maintain current services, should the city maintain a youth department? Should the city maintain an arts department? Should the city maintain a weights and measures department? Are there other city services that you would consider eliminating?
We should maintain our youth department, particularly in light of the serious cuts in education and we may want to look to modify its mission to more directly compliment the needs of our educational system. We should transfer the responsibilities of weights and measures to the state. Maintain the arts budget but look to find a way to transition it to the private sector. The right time to make these choices and changes is not during the budget process. That is why we should consider biennium budgeting and use five and 10-year budget forecasting to make these strategic budget decisions.
4. Do you support increasing hotel taxes to help balance the budget?
We need to focus first on city expenditures, to evaluate how we deliver services and how we assess how much these services cost before we look to additional revenue sources. With regard to this specific proposal, we must insure that we do everything to assist our local businesses and to facilitate their financial success and not add financial burdens which could impact their competitiveness.
5. Spokane has one of the highest utility tax rates in the state. Would you consider implementing a local business and occupation tax, as many cities in western Washington have done, as a way to lower the utility tax or other city taxes?
Absolutely not. Many, if not most of our businesses, especially small businesses, exist with very small profit margins. Business and Occupation taxes are gross receipts taxes which apply irrespective of the success or profitability of the business. Additionally, the State of Washington already imposes a B & O tax while the State of Idaho does not. If we imposed a local B&O tax it would make it even more difficult to compete against other cities for businesses to locate here and for businesses to thrive that are here.
6. The city recently has lobbied the Legislature to amend state law regarding binding arbitration so that if contract negotiations stall between the city and a union representing firefighters or police officers, an arbitrator could consider additional factors when setting wages and benefits, such as a city’s ability to pay and to maintain a reserve fund. Do you support this change to state law?
Yes. We need to compensate our police officers and firefighters fairly. One challenge with binding arbitration is that it focuses solely on the concept of comparable compensation and ignores the ability of the city to pay. I support balancing the payment of fair compensation, against the ability of the community to support it.
7. City officials increased sewer charges by 17 percent last year and predict more increases the next few years in large part to pay for nearly $650 million for projects required by the state to improve sewage treatment and prevent untreated sewage from spilling into the river. Do you support sewage fee increases that could top 10 percent in each of the next couple of years? If not, what would be your preferred alternative?
The demands of the state are prompted by its assessment of the need to maintain the quality of the water in the Spokane River. We should continue to engage the Department of Ecology as to the most cost-efficient ways to accomplish their regulatory goals. We must also take all steps to minimize any other increases in the costs of our wastewater treatment utility. For example, the City’s utility tax, the tax assessed by the general fund against our own utilities (water, sewer and garbage) increased over the last four years by nearly 50 percent. This is not sustainable. It adds to our already burdensome sewer charges, charges that are very regressive, disproportionately impacting our lower income citizens.
8. Should the city continue to use the Waste-to-Energy Plant to dispose trash collected within Spokane?
Until we find a better and more cost-effective alternative I am in favor of retaining it. I have studied the efforts of governments and private companies to convert various forms of waste into a useable energy product, in most cases synthetic gas and electricity. This is both an effort to find alternative ways to dispose of waste (garbage, sewage, by-products of food production, and mining and manufacturing), and to create alternative fuel sources. The Waste-to-Energy facility is just such an example of this reformation process. The facility is now 20 years old and there are most certainly better technologies, but it produces $12 million in revenue from the electricity generated. The salient question is not whether we should keep it but what would we do with our solid waste if we eliminated it. Landfills have come under greater scrutiny recently and alternative reformation technology would cost millions.
9. Do you support tax incentives for historic renovation? Do you support tax incentives for building condos and apartments downtown and in certain neighborhood centers?
I support the concept of providing tax incentives to encourage the preservation of important historic structures and to facilitate development in areas that add vitality to the core of the city and our respective neighborhoods. But all of this should be part of a comprehensive strategic economic development plan initiated by the city and promoted by our business and neighborhood partners. It should also be overlaid with a strategic financial plan which contemplates the fiscal impact of providing these incentives.
10. Many candidates are focused this campaign season on job creation. Should the city actively try to create jobs? If so, what should it do?
It is absolutely the responsibility of the city to be part of the process which results in job creation. The role of the city is twofold. The first is to create an economic atmosphere in which businesses are encouraged to thrive, and creates incentives for business growth and development and the hiring of additional workers to support that growth and development. The second is to be the voice of the city and its businesses to convey the important message that the city is open for business.
11. Do you support the use of red light cameras? If so, do you support diverting ticket revenue from a fund for traffic safety projects to help balance the budget?
I do support the use of red light cameras because they identify and ticket drivers who break our traffic laws. These are general fund revenues, as are revenues from such tickets written by our police officers and should be deposited into our general fund.
12. Do you support the decision to have a full-time police ombudsman? Do you believe that the ombudsman should have the authority to conduct independent investigations into alleged police misconduct?
I do support the ombudsman position. To be effective the ombudsman must be fair, credible, and have investigative authority which allows the truth to be discovered. This is equally important to the police who are being investigated as it is to the citizens who expect justice and fair treatment.
13. Would you support a law, modeled after a law in Seattle, to make misdemeanor possession of marijuana by an adult the city’s lowest enforcement priority?
There already exists conflict between our own state marijuana laws and those of the federal government. Adding a third layer of government to the conflict will lead to further uncertainty not more certainty. The City Council passes laws which do not conflict with state and federal laws in areas where the province of these higher governments is recognized. We work hard to identify and hire a chief of police and police officers with the best skills and greatest judgment we can. Their job is to protect the public and enforce the laws. They are professionally trained to do that, are worthy of our trust and they are held accountable to the public for exercising good judgment even under extremely stressful circumstances. Their responsibility includes the discretion to set priorities to insure the overall safety of our community.
14. The Spokane Fire Department’s goals for response times (arrive on scene within 8 minutes and 30 seconds 90 percent of the time) are significantly lower than standards set by the National Fire Protection Association (arrive on scene within 5 minutes 90 percent of the time). Given the city’s budget problems, do you have proposals to improve response times?
There are no easy answers to the financial challenges of our city. We currently spend a very significant portion of our budget on the Fire Department. Our citizens expect and deserve quality core services, such as public safety, streets, libraries and parks. Diverting more resources to one compromises the others. We simply must look at better methods, better models and better structures to deliver these core services at that expected level, without making further financial demands on our citizens.
15. Given the recent finding of a bomb placed along the annual route of the Martin Luther King Jr. march in Spokane, what should be the role of the city’s Human Rights Commission?
Currently, the city’s Human Rights Commission receives and processes complaints of human rights violations then passes them along to the state Human Rights Commission for investigation of those complaints. We have a good working relationship with the State and that partnership should continue. When these crimes of hate occur the city must speak out and confront and condemn the violators. Perhaps the City Council should reaffirm a resolution I sponsored as Council President in reaction to another hate-motivated incident, that the city has zero tolerance for crimes against our citizens motivated by hate and will investigate and prosecute any such crimes to the full extent of the law. Our own Human Rights Commission should be empowered to independently speak out as well against these appalling incidents.
LIBRARIES, PARKS AND ENVIRONMENT
16. Spokane’s library system offers significantly fewer hours than many of the 20 largest cities in Washington. Would you be willing to ask voters for a tax to boost this service as was requested earlier this year by the city library board?
With the state of the economy, and many citizens struggling, I do not favor asking them to pay additional taxes. Before we ask for more money we must prove that we have evaluated our organization and the way we deliver services to insure that we are providing absolute value for the dollars our citizens share with us. If we do this and we still find a need for additional money and the economy has improved, we may consider a request, specifying exactly how the money would be used. In the interim, we must balance the budget with existing resources.
17. A consultant hired by the city to review city services in 2006 said that the city was not investing enough in its urban forest. Should the city do more to plant and maintain street trees. If so, how?
Of course the city should continue to protect and support the Urban Forestry Program. I was on the Spokane Park Board when this important program first took form. One has only to look to photographs of Spokane at the beginning of the last century when the city was virtually devoid of trees to appreciate what an important quality of life element our urban trees provide. There are very important demands, including this one for the city’s limited resources. So to give this the priority it deserves we need to think creatively about sources of funds and strategic partnerships. One such partnership is Susie’s Forest, a nonprofit organization started by Nancy MacKerrow in honor of her daughter to plant trees in the urban environment. We also need to look to shared funding vehicles such as local improvement districts when we reconstruct and improve our streets.
18. Do you support the sustainability plan promoted by Mayor Mary Verner, which was adopted by the Spokane City Council in 2010? Do you support the decision of former Mayor Dennis Hession to sign the U.S. Conference of Mayors’ Climate Protection Agreement?
I do support the sustainability plan and was privileged to sign the U.S. Conference of Mayor’s Climate Protection Agreement on behalf of the City of Spokane. Recall that sustainability integrates economic, human, and environmental values in making decisions and that the purpose of which is to provide for the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet theirs. The strategy of the Sustainability Plan that expects continuous improvement is most important because, if the city will establish goals using innovation and vision, and insist that there be follow-through and accountability for expected outcomes, this city could progress and thrive in a very significant way.
19. Some nearby cities have crafted restrictions for watering lawns during certain hours. Would you support instituting similar rules in Spokane?
I support a comprehensive water stewardship program that promotes sensible and necessary use of our water. Limiting watering to certain hours to avoid the wasting of water during the warmest parts of the day should be considered but only as an element of the comprehensive program. We are blessed by an incredible water source, the Spokane Aquifer, but it is not limitless and we all need to do our part to preserve it for our future.
20. Most city officials say that the street department has not been adequately funded to properly maintain city streets once they are reconstructed. This year, the City Council approved a $20 vehicle tab tax to boost street funding. Do you support this decision? If not, would you support a change in state law to allow the city to create a street utility fee that would be charged on city trash and water bills?
Streets are a high priority for our citizens. I support a dedicated funding source for streets. However, we need to be more strategic in the way we allocate and utilize our resources. This grab bag approach to funding is not strategic. A street utility charge would require a change in state law. The Legislature has been approached with the idea but it was met with much opposition and is unlikely to pass in the future. Before we ask for more money we need to challenge our conventions and develop a new plan for Spokane that is creative, efficient and better.
21. The city has nearly completed the projects it promised voters in the 2004 street bond. Would you support asking voters for a new street bond of a similar or greater scope? If so, should the bond include money to pay for sidewalks, bike lanes, street trees or other street improvements besides pavement from “curb-to-curb?”
I support asking our citizens to consider additional funding for street improvements. Using a dedicated funding source approved by the taxpayers is good financial management. Many streets, all around the city, were given new life using these funds. The problem is that the street bond is a 10-year construction plan but a 20-year financing plan. That means we will be paying for these improvements for 10 years after the work is completed. I would support a proposal which allows the city to refinance the existing bonds, capture the equity earned, generate a more modest spending plan but keep the cost to the citizens the same. By limiting the use of street bonds to “curb to curb” improvements many more streets can be fixed, and we have many in need of repair. Neighbors could also participate by forming local improvement districts to finance sidewalk improvements, street trees, and other desired amenities.
22. Do you support asking voters for a sales tax to build a streetcar or trolley system in central Spokane?
The more pertinent question is—do you support a streetcar or trolley system in central Spokane? My answer to that is yes, if it can be demonstrated that such a system promotes economic development and enhances our quality of life, and is not merely an expensive form of transportation. A fixed rail structure should be considered, even though more expensive than a rubber tire alternative, because it has been proven in other cities that these streetcars become a significant catalyst for development of properties adjacent to the routes. The property owners are thus incentivized to participate in the funding of the system through local assessments.
23. Where should the city install bike lanes? Would you be willing to support the installation of a bike lane on a street if the city engineer determined that doing so could cause an intersection to earn a “failing” rating for car traffic congestion?
I support the city’s promotion, facilitation, and development of bicycle transportation and the infrastructure to support it. It is a healthy mode of transportation which promotes exercise and reduces pollution and should be encouraged. The challenge for the city within the built environment is that the streets were not originally designed to accommodate such two wheel traffic and that efforts to accommodate them creates additional expense leaving fewer dollars for street repairs and conflicts with motorized vehicles. One idea is to identify certain north/south and east/west streets that could operate as spines or corridors and would be designated as primary two wheel traffic routes. The limited funds could be dedicated to improvements on specified street and all drivers and riders would be more aware of the road sharing on those streets. In areas of new development, better planning could be required to accommodate all modes of transportation.
24. State leaders have said that local funding may be needed to pay to finish the North Spokane Freeway. Do you support the completion of the North Spokane Freeway south of Francis Avenue to Interstate 90? If so, would you be willing to support local taxes, fees or tolls for the freeway?
First, let me say that I don’t believe that we have done all we can to pursue state and federal resources, nor do I believe that the citizens could pay, whether in the form of taxes, fees, or tolls, to complete this significant project. We have made some good progress, but now is the time for the city to bring together leaders of the city, county, state and federal governments and other stakeholders—to put together a viable strategy to pursue the funding and financing to complete this important project. This is not just a transportation amenity for Spokane it is the designated NAFTA corridor, a necessary piece in the transportation of goods among our U.S. trading partners.
25. Current plans for the North Spokane Freeway call for its interchange with Interstate 90 to expand I-90 to about 20 lanes wide, including onramps and service roads, in a portion of the East Central Neighborhood. Do you support this configuration?
I do not support the current plan for the interchange. While in office, I observed how seriously and negatively this plan will impact the East Central section of our city, and challenged the state Department of Transportation to justify its plan. I am aware of some information that would support an alternative proposal which is much less intrusive, and less expensive, than the state’s plan. As Council President I would plan to partner with the mayor to support our East Central neighbors in an effort to bring some reason to the ultimate decision on this project.