Q&A: Mary Verner, running for Spokane mayor
1. Why do you feel that you are the best candidate?
I’m the only candidate who has experience running a city with a complex $600 million budget and over 2,000 employees. I’ve successfully served as City Council member and mayor, elected citywide, and have demonstrated my ability to implement citizens’ priorities. My proven track records in business, government, law and management have made me well-suited to serve again as CEO of the City. Service to the community has always been at the forefront of my career choices, and I am honored to again seek to serve the citizens of this great city.
2. What is your top priority and how specifically would you work to achieve your top priority?
My fundamental priority is long-term financial stability for the city so our people can prosper. I will continue principal-based budget management, focused on citizen priorities: public safety, streets for all and quality of life. I’ll keep working with our employees to improve efficiency and cost-effectiveness. Simultaneously, I will continue supporting existing businesses with affordable high-value city services and will expand my outreach to recruit new businesses to Spokane to provide family-wage jobs.
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?
The Youth, Arts, and Weights & Measures departments are important for quality of life, opportunity for young people, the culture and character of our city and consumer protection. However, my focus for the general fund is on protecting our citizens’ safety and maintaining basic infrastructure. Management, supervisory and workforce ranks have been reduced and program budgets have been deeply cut. We must retain essential core services to support local businesses and grow private-sector jobs. So I am exploring options with City Council and community members to retain these important small departments through alternative arrangements and partnerships.
4. Do you support increasing hotel taxes to help balance the budget?
Such increases could have negative consequences for Spokane’s hoteliers and the tourism industry, so I have asked those stakeholders to consider the concept and advise me of potential harms of a tax increase balanced against additional reductions in city services (such as police and fire protection and maintenance of parks and streets) if the budget is balanced with all cuts and no new revenue.
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?
Although Spokane’s utility customers pay bills that compare favorably to utility bills from other jurisdictions in the area, the utility tax is regressive; that is, it has its largest impact on those least able to pay. Timing is critical for altering our tax structure. The recession has focused our attention on regressive sales and utility taxes, but also creates legitimate concerns about increasing the costs of doing business when local businesses are struggling to keep workers on their payrolls. My Citizens Financial Advisory Committee advises against a local B&O tax at this time, and I agree we should pursue other ideas until small businesses can withstand additional expenses after business improves.
6. Do you support collective bargaining rights of government employees?
Yes. Successful labor negotiations kept our city from experiencing problems like those that occurred this spring in Wisconsin. I respect the staff’s professionalism as well as the bargaining process. Through the collaborative decision-making process of collective bargaining, I was able to achieve significant compromises in staff ratios and benefit cost reductions which were made thoughtfully and rationally for the last three years. Sharing our budget information educated the unions about harsh economic realities. With mutual understanding by management and labor, I was able to lead negotiations to significant reductions, and met the challenge of balancing not one, not two, but three years of city budgets with cumulative $34 million deficit reduction while avoiding layoffs.
7. 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?
8. 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?
No, I do not want increases to be so steep. In fact, I proposed a lower increase last year, but City Council increased the rate by 17 percent. I prefer more moderate annual increases, using previously-saved reserves, grants, low-interest loans and revenue bonds. In 2008, I commissioned the city’s first-ever comprehensive utility rate review so we could set rates based on long-term stability for the utilities and citizens’ ability to pay. I believe this approach should continue to guide rate-setting as we make investments necessary to clean up the Spokane River. Unfortunately, hard decisions were deferred in the past, and rates will exceed 10 percent increases until the largest capital investments are completed. Innovative projects that collect storm water in attractive roadside planters (West Broadway, South Lincoln) help reduce sewage treatment costs. I’ll continue to work with regulators to pace costs of compliance to keep rates as low as possible.
9. City leaders decided last year to change the city’s water rate structure to lower the rate paid by customers who use less and increase the rate paid by users of more water. Do you support this concept?
I did not support the specific rates adopted by City Council for 2011 because they strained the Water Department’s ability to repair old pipes and connections. Nonetheless, as the Spokane region grows, there’s increased pressure on the unique aquifer that supplies our high-quality drinking water. I support the concept of a water rate that encourages conservation, as initially begun in 2005. The city’s revised residential water rates are lower than last year’s for customers who use small average amounts of water. Increases are on customers who consume more (over 33,600 gallons per month). Pre-2005 rates rewarded wastefulness by charging less for large usage. The new rates encourage people to conserve water by fixing leaks, using drip irrigation, choosing drought-tolerant plants and watering in cooler parts of the day. City staff will help citizens with alternatives for lawns and gardens to maintain attractive neighborhoods and feed families with summer produce.
10. Should the city continue to use the Waste-to-Energy Plant to dispose trash collected within Spokane?
The Waste-to-Energy (WTE) facility remains the cornerstone of an environmentally-sound and cost-effective comprehensive waste management system for our region. WTE air quality controls are very effective and fully compliant with regulations, and usable metals are extracted before the ash is disposed in a certified repository. Landfills temporarily store garbage and require extraordinary expense to protect the aquifer and capture methane and other pollutants, then ultimately result in large land surfaces undesirable for economic use. At the WTE facility, relatively small quantities of waste that cannot be converted to energy are properly disposed in landfills after hazardous substances and re-usable materials are extracted. Also, the WTE facility produces electricity, steam and water to support industry and jobs on the West Plains. A privately-owned regional recycling center being constructed adjacent to the WTE will increase the value of this asset.
11. Do you support tax incentives for historic renovation? Do you support tax incentives for building condos and apartments downtown and in certain neighborhood centers?
Spokane’s historic buildings add character and value to our community. Appropriately-located higher-density housing in appropriate locations is called for in our comprehensive plan and reduces the cost of delivering city services. So, I do support tax incentives, with limitations on their scope and duration. Incentives encourage private investment in real estate and result in increased property values and higher tax revenue to the city when the incentives expire. Eligibility criteria for both historic renovation and multifamily tax exemptions should be reviewed periodically to make sure they are serving their intended purposes.
12. Do you support the use of tax-increment financing?
Tax-increment financing (TIF) helps developers meet threshold financing requirements so they can invest in real estate improvements while streets, sidewalks and utilities are financed based on the incremental increase in property values after development, compared to property values before development. TIF should be used carefully to catalyze desired growth (such as in the University District, Iron Bridge area and Kendall Yards) and with reasonable termination dates to put TIF properties on the regular tax rolls as soon as possible. I advocate a comprehensive countywide TIF approach to manage the number of tax-deferrals outstanding at any given time and to focus the use of this tool on areas designated in the Comprehensive Plan.
13. Many candidates are focused this campaign season on job creation. Should the city actively try to create jobs? If so, what should it do?
As Mayor, I have been actively involved in job creation for Spokane. I finalized the sale of Playfair to bring manufacturing jobs to East Central and recruited the regional recycling center to the West Plains. I was a founding member of the University District Board to bring jobs to this burgeoning area and shepherded funding and construction of public infrastructure necessary for U District development. I’m on the Steering Committee that secured funding for the medical school that will anchor expansion of health care jobs. I’ve been personally involved in recruiting, retaining and expanding tourism and businesses in aerospace and technology and am the champion behind the growth of our clean energy industry cluster. I’ve formalized target areas to focus city investment and support existing businesses with improved city services. My track record with job growth is tangible and based on practical steps to prove Spokane is business-friendly.
14. Where should the city allow the construction of large retail stores, such as Target or Walmart, within city limits?
Large retail stores are best suited in our Centers and Corridors where city taxpayers have already paid for much of the sewer, water and traffic lights to accommodate them. Placing these high-impact retail businesses in other areas can cause an unplanned strain on the city, its streets, its neighbors and the six-year utility and transportation budget plans. The benefits must outweigh the overall costs.
15. 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 support camera enforcement for intersection safety. Red-light running is extremely dangerous. Over 23,000 tickets have been issued at only seven intersections since the first cameras were installed in October of 2008, so it is obvious that driver behavior needs to change. It is impractical to use scarce police resources for this purpose, and the camera systems preserve privacy and provide an appeal process. I support using the revenue only for traffic safet, and believe funding traffic patrols (such as speed limit emphasis patrols) would be consistent with the use of the funds for traffic safety.
16. 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 was personally involved in exploring a police ombudsman program while a council member and hired the city’s first full-time ombudsman after I became mayor in 2008. I directly oversee the ombudsman and have supported his active outreach to the entire citywide community, as well as his autonomy. I listened and responded decisively to citizens who advocated greater powers for this position, including the authority to not only simply monitor Police Department investigations of complaints, but also to independently contact and interview witnesses and file independent reports on his findings and recommendations. The ombudsman created an ad hoc committee on Taser use, and a Web page where citizen complaints can be submitted online. As U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis D. Brandeis said, “sunshine is the best disinfectant,” and the city benefits from an open process that guarantees citizen oversight of law enforcement.
17. 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?
The phrase “there ought to be a law” comes to mind. In Spokane, no law is needed to determine the city’s enforcement priorities. Law enforcement professionals use a common-sense approach to prioritize crimes against persons, domestic violence, child and elder abuse and endangerment, gang and repeat-offender crimes, and so forth. With extremely limited resources, the SPD already does not prioritize uncomplicated misdemeanors. However, officers should not be constrained to enforce when the context of the misdemeanor requires it. No new law is needed in this instance.
18. 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?
Working with fire command staff and firefighters, we are achieving improvements in the way we deploy scarce resources to respond more quickly to incidents. A recent example is the change from 4-person to 3-person staffing so that two stations can deploy smaller, faster vehicles with paramedics to emergency medical calls where the fire truck is not needed. We continue exploring options for a station in Hangman Valley to respond more quickly to this area. While substantial amounts of additional money would be needed for personnel, apparatus, and equipment to significantly improve average response times citywide, we remain focused on continuous improvement within budget constraints to respond as quickly as possible.
19. 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?
I have restructured and reinvigorated the Human Rights Commission (HRC) with a new slate of committed and engaged commissioners and clear bylaws. The HRC’s role is outreach and education, and HRC leaders have facilitated dialogue among adversaries to encourage respectful and peaceful coexistence of Spokane citizens from different cultures with contrary points of view. The HRC also forwards complaints to agencies with enforcement authority to address discriminatory conditions and practices.
LIBRARIES, PARKS AND ENVIRONMENT
20. 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?
Increased revenues will be necessary if library hours are to be increased. Cuts to all general fund budgets have constrained library funding to freezes alongside other frozen departmental budgets. I asked the library board to be patient regarding new taxes as we prioritize many different requests to voters. Citizens’ tolerance for new taxes is very limited, while funding needs are extensive (fire and emergency medical response, police investigation of property crimes, animal control, and many more). I believe taxes for these essential services must be balanced to provide adequate library services, as well.
21. Do you support closing the East Side or other branches to help balance the budget?
The East Side branch is needed for nearby residents with few options for library materials and services such as computer access. We have achieved innovative partnerships with community centers and nonprofit organizations, and I prefer emphasis on creative solutions instead of closing library branches.
22. 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?
I’m pleased to report that the urban forestry program has improved greatly since I was elected. Public trees are basic elements of our quality of life and our infrastructure, and we must maintain them as core assets. Trees are an attractive and low-cost way to keep our air clean and control storm water, flooding and erosion.
The Park Board is exploring increased funding for Urban Forestry since it is one of the core missions in the Parks charter. Every city utility customer can contribute directly to the urban forestry program. If 50,000 ratepayers donated $1 per month, the small urban forestry budget of $300,000 would nearly double.
23. 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?
Major insurance companies and the U.S. Defense Department are increasing their efforts to address risks of dependence on foreign oil and high-priced energy. With a small grant, my administration and 150 citizens compiled the city’s Sustainability Plan to guide city actions to reduce waste and exhibit leadership for the community. I’ve taken tangible actions to address the city’s impact on the environment and the global economy’s impact on Spokane.
Spokane’s Sustainability Plan received planning association awards. Greenhouse gas reduction targets in the plan build on former Mayor Hession’s 2007 pledge to the Mayors’ Climate Protection Agreement. Other goals and action steps include: alternative transportation options; community gardens; using recycled glass in street projects; and, disseminating educational materials. I developed an energy savings plan, with the help of a loaned Avista executive, to take more steps to reduce the city’s annual purchase of $8 million in electricity and natural gas.
24. Some nearby cities have crafted restrictions for watering lawns during certain hours. Would you support instituting similar rules in Spokane?
Mandatory restrictions are not necessary. My Sustainability Task Force identified early on the need to promote smart use of water in Spokane. The programs are working. People are watering their lawns more efficiently with a rebate offered for new technology to sense when your lawn needs to be watered, and accessing our help converting to landscaping that requires less water. An education campaign through our Water Department, called “Slow the Flow,” has been effective in helping customers reduce water use at both the residential and commercial level. Within City Hall, we launched several initiatives to cut waste and trim our usage of both power and water. We launched a pilot program on our golf courses to use treated waste water instead of fresh water. This summer, we just won a national award from the EPA for reusing storm water in urban gardens to landscape a small business district.
25. 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?
I am in close contact with many other mayors who are all dealing with the same challenge of loss of federal funding and gas tax dollars for streets. I followed the council’s decision closely and understood the rationale for having users of our streets pay to maintain them. The state currently does not allow cities to have an additional street utility fee, and I do believe the legislature should give cities the freedom to pursue it, if they choose to. For Spokane, a street utility program would have to go to the voters to decide by majority. I would not support it without voter approval.
26. 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 supported the street bond in 2004 and, as mayor, I accelerated bond projects to leverage federal funding and retain construction jobs. I’m happy to report we’ll finish the first list of projects a year earlier than expected.
I think we should ask voters to continue this program. We’ve fixed one-third of our damaged streets. If citizens think it’s a good investment, I’ll support this highly accountable street rehabilitation program to repair and repave more streets. Reconditioned streets cost citizens less to operate in the long run.
Some streets function well with curb-to-curb pavement; others need to accommodate non-motorized transportation. The second largest city in the state needs streets safe for motorists and for children, seniors and all of us who walk, bike or use a walker or a wheelchair. Some streets, especially around schools and shopping centers, need safety improvements that could be financed with bond money.
27. Do you support asking voters for a sales tax to build a streetcar or trolley system in central Spokane?
Any new tax for this kind of project should be sent to the voters for their approval. I have been the co-chair of the Central City Transit Alternatives project, and I do support installation of an electric trolley system in downtown. The trolley will catalyze the next level of downtown revitalization and connect residential, business, academic, government, commercial and health services centers along the circulator routes. I will work to secure voter support for this transit project when the details are finalized.
28. 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?
The city should install bike lanes according to the Master Bike Plan, as reviewed for engineering and economic feasibility. Bike lanes should be designed to address high-priority safety areas, making sure they interface smoothly with the transportation network and freight vehicle and pedestrian traffic patterns.
Traffic congestion often happens in cities our size, and while engineers work toward reducing long waits at lights (a failing “F” grade for level of service), continual management of signal light timing has improved those waits, helping us to accommodate bike lanes and keep our overall traffic moving.
29. 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?
I do support the completion of the North-South freeway, but not at the expense of repairing our local streets. We need to finish what we started and open the freeway to push heavy freight traffic off our local streets. I would prefer using tolls, fees and state and federal partnerships, rather than local taxes, to complete the corridor. I remain supportive of a regional Transportation Benefit District to contribute funds to this project of regional significance.
30. Current plans for the North Spokane Freeway call for its interchange with Interstate 90 to expand I-90 to about 20 lanes wide, including on-ramps and service roads, in a portion of the East Central Neighborhood. Do you support this configuration?
A width of 20 lanes has been proposed, but the East Central Neighborhood’s concerns must be considered. The configuration needs to go through a more thorough community process and engineering and economic analysis before the final configuration is determined.