Council discusses transportation, luring businesses at retreat

May 5, 2009

By Warren Kagarise

Hunkered in a conference room for a rare weekend session, City Council members committed themselves to improve transportation, plan for future development and make it easier for new businesses to open in Issaquah.As they ready to tackle the 2010 city budget, the council joined Mayor Ava Frisinger and several city directors to set goals for next year.

During a daylong meeting May 2, council members pared existing goals but added few new objectives as they prepare for tough budget negotiations. Officials said several goals laid out in previous years were now redundant, outdated or established as part of city programs.

For instance, council members trimmed a lengthy list of transportation goals to a clear statement about improving mobility.

But the council was reluctant to add sweeping new goals as city officials grapple with dwindling revenue from key sources: building permits and sales tax.

“We are in tough economic times,” Councilman Fred Butler said. “But I believe we need to position the city for the recovery that’s going to come.”

Officials project about $7 million in city reserves by the end of the year. Though council members have directed city staffers to avoid tapping into reserves, they did not rule out the possibility of using money from the rainy day fund to pay for projects or cover shortfalls.

“There are the bones you can’t cut into and there’s the meat that you can,” Councilman Joshua Schaer said.

Officials worked with Bellevue consultant Greg Prothman to draft a list of objectives. Early in his presentation, Prothman praised city officials for saving money: “Congratulations on a very well-managed city.”

But he suggested officials could “strategically burn” reserve dollars to accomplish goals and maintain city services. Wielding a purple marker, Prothman crossed off outdated goals and jotted suggestions on oversized sheets of paper affixed to three walls of a conference room in the Public Works Operations Building.

Led by Prothman, council members distilled the list into a set of initiatives to promote environmental protection, ensure access to government officials and information, and protect salmon habitat. They also suggested measures to improve public safety — such as considering a reverse-911 notification system — and transportation.

To encourage development during the recession, council members suggested a streamlined permitting and inspection process for new businesses to be included among the goals.

Councilman John Traeger said officials should capitalize on the downturn to promote Issaquah and attract new businesses and high-paying jobs.

“Right now, most of the employment in this town does not pay the rent to live in this town,” he said.

A firm set of goals will go to the City Council for consideration within the next several weeks. From there, the goals will aid city department directors as they draft budget proposals. City Administrator Leon Kos said the goals drive the budget and city work programs.

Goals for 2009 encompass a 21-page booklet detailing 10 goals, and efforts by city departments to implement them. But council members spent little time reviewing past accomplishments. Schaer suggested skipping updates on existing plans and focusing instead on new goals.

“I’ve been here for the last year,” he said. “I’ve been awake and I know what we’ve done.”

Councilman John Rittenhouse said a key test for the goals would be whether they were implemented. He recalled his first visit to Issaquah in 1991, when he traveled here for a job interview. He said the real test would be whether policymakers from then would be able to see goals outlined 18 years ago as accomplishments today.

Rittenhouse also raised concerns about simplifying goals — several of which were condensed from lists with bullet points to broad directives. He asked whether residents would be able to get a sense of the city’s priorities from the goals.

“I’ll tell you exactly how they know what’s important to us: It’s what we fund in the budget,” Butler replied.

Reach Reporter Warren Kagarise at 392-6434, ext. 234, or wkagarise@isspress.com. Comment on this story at www.issaquahpress.com.

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