Q&A: Richard Rush, running for Spokane City Council seat representing South Spokane
1. Why do you feel that you are the best candidate?
I am the best candidate because I have the strongest work ethic, as demonstrated by my record of accomplishment during my first term on the City Council. Please see my website at: www.voterichardrush.com for a list of those accomplishments. Most significantly, I seek this office to implement the vision the citizens have expressed for their city, a vision I fully support. I represent my district and the community, not individual special interests that seek exceptions or legislation that benefits a few at the expense of the community.
BUDGET AND TAXES
2. 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 city would be best served by maintaining its current departments and services. Even if reduced, departments and services are much more easily reestablished when a department remains in the budget. As Spokane positions itself for recovery, it is important we preserve the elements that distinguish our city and give us a competitive advantage. Only if a department is not serving this function should it be considered for elimination.
3. 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?
A business and occupational tax is not appropriate for Spokane. It would put Spokane businesses at a competitive disadvantage to businesses in adjacent and neighboring jurisdictions.
Utility taxes damage our economy and further limits the ability of economically disadvantaged families to thrive and participate, thereby limiting the economy for everyone.
Every time utility rates increase, especially for essential services like water, sewer and garbage, the amount of utility tax increases as well. Spokane would do well to cease expanding the use of the utility tax, as would occur under the adoption of a street utility.
One method of reducing the impact of utility taxes is to keep utility rates stable for low-consumption users. The City Council began this task in December 2011 by reducing water and garbage rates for 60% of Spokane residents. Additional measures can be taken to further reduce this tax burden.
4. 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. It is unrealistic to expect wages in a low cost of living community like Spokane to be competitive with wages in higher income, higher cost of living municipalities. However it is important to recognize and acknowledge the city’s unions have been excellent partners in helping the city maintain services and preserve jobs by making significant concessions to wages and benefits as city revenues have fallen. The city currently enjoys exemplary labor relations with its union representatives as partners in providing municipal services in extraordinary economic circumstances.
5. 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?
Sewage treatment costs are escalating in communities across the nation as a result of decades of poor practices which have compromised the health of our rivers and ground water. The bill for those practices is now coming due. The City of Spokane entered into a consent decree to limit sewer overflows into the river to one per pipe per year by 2017 (there are 26 overflow pipes). To meet this cost, the city must both increase wastewater rates and borrow capital funds to finance construction. The good news is this construction will create private sector living-wage jobs over the next six years. The bad news is this will escalate costs for wastewater rate payers. What is important is to find the balance of debt and increased rates that will be the most affordable and sustainable for ratepayers.
6. Should the city continue to use the Waste-to-Energy Plant to dispose trash collected within Spokane?
Yes, if use of the WTE facility is the most economical means of disposing of waste. This equation has many moving parts including the market price of electricity, the cost of fuel, the benefit of having the WTE facility as the foundation of the West Plains Energy District and the value to the community of owning electrical generation capacity. This equation is based on varied assumptions and projections. In creative, entrepreneurial hands, the WTE has potential as an economic development tool for the city.
7. Do you support tax incentives for historic renovation? Do you support tax incentives for building condos and apartments downtown and in certain neighborhood centers?
Commercial and supporting residential development in the city’s designated centers and corridors is laying the foundation for the economic revitalization of the city. The city provides tax incentives to encourage this development. It is noteworthy that certain thresholds for multi-family and/or low income housing must be met to obtain these incentives. This infill development will slow the increase in per capita cost for the delivery of city services as that development will be served by existing infrastructure like water, sewer and streets rather than the ever increasing cost of municipal services driven by sprawl.
A day will come when incentives are no longer necessary to redevelop land within the city. When that day arrives will depend on timing of the inextricable increase in the cost of fuel coupled with the vibrancy the developed urban core will offer city dwellers.
8. Many candidates are focused this campaign season on job creation. Should the city actively try to create jobs? If so, what should it do?
If job creation can be spurred by municipal government, that phenomenon will be driven by the ability of the city to build public spaces where people want to live, work, shop and invest. This exercise is called “placemaking.”
Previous generations created public spaces with parks, buildings, schools and streets that made for a high quality of life and incented economic development. The city should continue this practice and reinvent our public spaces with the principles of placemaking in mind. Near nature, near perfect is more than a slogan. It references a quality of life the city should strive to provide and make accessible for all.
I continue to support the work of our economic development department and celebrate their success in the city’s centers such as Hillyard, the International District, the University District and the Perry District.
9. 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?
Photo-red traffic enforcement has reduced the number of incidents of red light running in Spokane. The revenue from these traffic violations is dedicated to the purpose of traffic calming, a venture the city has had no resources to fund until the advent of photo-red traffic enforcement. Neighborhoods have responded overwhelmingly with requests for traffic calming features and to date, the program is a success. As this revenue was dedicated to this purpose at the inception of the program and the program has seen such success, I oppose diversion of these funds for another purpose.
10. 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?
Revising the ordinance establishing a greater scope of OPO authority was a hallmark of my first term. Included in that greater scope is the authority to “interview the complainant and any non-member witnesses and determine facts and circumstances as necessary to create a closing report…” Section 04.32.030(B) The ombudsman has this independent investigative authority.
The OPO’s purpose is to report to the Council and Mayor regarding best police practices and to add a significant measure of transparency to police procedure. It should also be noted the Police Guild, the union representing uniformed officers, has filed an unfair labor practice with the Washington State Public Employee Relations Commission challenging the changes to the OPO ordinance. I was present for the arbitration hearing in this matter and helped draft the post hearing brief. My position is the city was acting within its management prerogatives when the OPO ordinance was revised.
11. 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 police department only has 290 commissioned officer positions, down from a high of 308 in 2004. Only 275 of those officer positions are filled due to resource constraints.
Between 1999 and 2010, there was a 14% increase in calls for police services. As a result, our law enforcement officers frequently cannot respond to calls for property crimes. These are calls the city should be adequately staffed to respond to. Therefore it is critically important law enforcement priorities are set appropriately.
I would welcome a conversation regarding the revision of law enforcement priorities to better serve our citizens. It would not be appropriate to support legislation establishing any law enforcement priority prior to having such a conversation.
LIBRARIES, PARKS AND ENVIRONMENT
12. 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?
Yes. Libraries are both an educational and employment resource. They are a critical element in providing residents the tools necessary to position our economy for recovery.
The City made a significant capital investment in its library system in 1994. Citizens have made it clear they want the benefit of library services and they should have the opportunity to choose to financially support the library system.
13. 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?
The urban forest is a critical component of an effective storm water management system. The city will spend $350 million between now and 2017 to mitigate poor past stormwater practices that result in raw, untreated sewage being dumped into the river during any significant rainfall. Had the city properly planted and maintained its urban canopy, this cost would be a fraction of what it is today. And affordable, sustainable storm water management is just one benefit of a well-maintained urban forest.
The benefit of a healthy urban canopy was recognized over a decade ago with the adoption of the city’s Comprehensive Plan. That Plan contains a policy to plant and maintain street trees on every street. The city has yet to adopt this practice.
As storm water management is a primary beneficiary of street trees, revenue from the storm water account should be a significant contributor to a street tree planting and maintenance program.
14. 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?
Yes and yes. Sustainability measures, such as the urban canopy question addressed above, are sound financial practices that will both reduce the per capita cost of providing urban services and significantly improve our quality of life, enticing a creative class (particularly our children) to live, work and invest in Spokane.
15. Some nearby cities have crafted restrictions for watering lawns during certain hours. Would you support instituting similar rules in Spokane?
No. The city doesn’t have the resources to enforce restrictions. Water conservation has been addressed with adoption of a conservation water rate structure. Those using excessive amounts are now encouraged to employ technology that saves them water and money. Another benefit of the new water rate structure: 60% of water customers will see a decrease in their annual water bill. Another 25% will see modest increases under $20 during the highest consumption month, an increase that can avoid by employing best irrigation practices and avoiding overwatering.
While the region has an abundant sole-source aquifer, it is the river that dries up when we over pump that aquifer. (See Connecting Dots on my blog for details.) As Spokane County is expected to add 141,000 residents over the next 20 years, it is important to keep the per capita consumption of water at a level that will keep our river flowing.
16. 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?
The practice of spending $117 million dollars on street bond projects and not maintaining that investment is untenable. The city has depended on Real Estate Excise Tax (REET) revenue to help maintain streets. The amount of REET revenue dwindled from $3.4 million in 2008 to a projected $1.3 million in 2011, leaving a significant shortfall in street maintenance funding. For this reason, the city adopted the $20 tab fee to partially make up the difference.
I do not support a street utility for the reasons enumerated in my response to question #3.
17. 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?”
While the 2004 street bond financed 10 years worth of projects, the bond used to finance those projects will be paid over a 20-year period. Alternatives to a second street bond could include a voter-approved increase of the vehicle tab fee. This fee would provide roughly the same amount the city spends annually ($11.5 million) on street reconstruction projects. Another alternative would be a levy lid lift dedicated to street reconstruction. One advantage of either of these two financing methods is the avoidance of the interest expense that comes with bonding.
In any case, the city’s Comprehensive Plan provides for guidance on street construction and reconstruction projects. That policy was adopted during the broadest public participation process the city has ever engaged. If there is to be a change to that policy, it should include the same level of public participation and engagement the previous policy adoption enjoyed.
18. Do you support asking voters for a sales tax to build a streetcar or trolley system in central Spokane?
It will require more partners than just those who pay sales tax to finance the proposed Central City Line. The federal government has a “small starts” program where potentially half of the financing may be found. As in other cities where similar projects have been undertaken, participation by property owners on and near the project who will see their property values enhanced would likely be asked to participate.
To successfully implement any transit project will require a multiplicity of partners and a land-use planning component to insure all these “elements” of the urban fabric work together.
As the city and region diversifies its transportation portfolio to accommodate the 141,000 additional residents anticipated in Spokane County by 2031, projects like the High Performance Transit Network in Spokane Transit Authority’s long-range planning will be necessary to accommodate that growth. The Central City Line may be a foundational element of that network.
19. 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 bicycle lanes where designated in the Master Bike Plan, an element of the Comprehensive Plan. Adoption of the Master Bike Plan was another thorough, robust public process that involved hundreds of citizens and thousands of planning dollars.
The question of putting a bicycle facility on a “failing” intersection is one that arose around the reconstruction of Second Avenue. That trade-off was never genuine. There is sufficient right-of-way in that corridor to accommodate bicycle facilities, parking spaces and all current travel lanes. In any case, there are multiple considerations to be considered when allocating space in the right-of-way and the level of service for an intersection is only one of them.
20. 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?
My support or opposition is irrelevant. This is a Washington State Department of Transportation project. They have the authority to determine the size, type and locations of interchanges in their highway network. Local jurisdictions have no authority to intervene in WSDOT decisions.