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Kent mayoral candidates clash over budget issue
A clash over the handling of the city of Kent's budget continues to be a focus in the mayor's race between incumbent Suzette Cooke and challenger Tim Clark.
Cooke emphasized during the Kent Neighborhood Council Candidate Forum on Monday night that the budget has started to come back strong after fighting through a recession that led to cutting 100 city positions.
"I need to be very responsible with the budget," Cooke said to an estimated crowd of 130 who attended the forum at the Kent Senior Center. "We have just gone through a major recession. It was my responsibility to use less dollars than the council had budgeted to spend because we were not bringing in the revenue."
Cooke, seeking her third, four-year term as mayor on the Nov. 5 general election ballot, said she had to cut jobs to bring the budget under control. The mayor added that the most recent city budget projection shows 14 percent of the 2013 budget in reserve. The city's goal is 10 percent of each year's budget to go to a reserve fund.
Clark, who has spent the last four years on the Kent School Board after 16 years on the Kent City Council, said, "fiscal mismanagement" led the city to have just 2 percent of its 2012 budget in reserve.
"This is a dangerous situation for our city and we must do better," Clark said. "In fact, Moody's has dropped our bond rating two years in a row. Kent needs a long-term plan to stabilize and improve city services while holding on to valuable city assets, such as the golf course, instead of running from one debt crisis to the next."
Clark said he favors the council moving the financially struggling, city-owned Riverbend Golf Complex into the general fund rather than having the course trying to survive as an enterprise fund.
Riverbend's operating losses and a $2.25 million debt caused city officials to look at ways to get the complex self-sustainable financially. The facility has lost nearly $1.4 million over the last four years, including $220,903 in 2012, according to city documents. The debt is owed to an inter-fund loan, money that the city borrowed from its water and fleet funds to help pay off the bond for the golf complex, which includes an 18-hole course, Par 3 course, driving range and merchandise shop.
"The 18-hole course will take care of itself," Clark said. "The Par 3 is more problematic. But the Par 3 is aimed at an audience of the very young to learn the game of golf and the older people who still want the exercise. The asset is multi-generational. If it were up to me, I'd put it in the general fund."
Cooke said the Par 3 course has been targeted for potential sale because of the growing financial deficit at the complex but that she favors keeping the entire complex.
"It's a major part of the gateway to the city," she said. "Anything we can do to preserve that would be my choice."
During his council years, Clark said his votes helped lead to the Kent Station shopping mall, ShoWare Center, the South 277th Street corridor and the commuter parking garage next to the railroad tracks. He said as mayor he would continue to get major projects done.
"I hope that I can carry forward with the leadership, the passion for and the expertise in making things happen in the city," Clark said. "Four years from now I want to look back on my time as mayor and how we met our challenges.
"Clearly, we have large infrastructure challenges, not the least of which is the need for overpasses over the railroad tracks to keep our downtown traffic going and businesses able to connect and serve their clients. We need to preserve and maintain our park system. I've always been very proud of our park system but the fact is the fiscal problems have caused erosion in some of the infrastructure and we have to have a tactical budget specifically for parks."
If re-elected, Cooke said she will continue to get residents more involved in the city.
"I'm pretty transparent," Cooke said. "Those of you who have had conversations with me know I can be very blunt. But I need you to be a participant in this government. That is my No. 1 priority as mayor is to make certain the city of Kent is your city. The only way that happens is you being engaged and asking the questions and finding out what's going on."
Cooke added that the Neighborhood Councils program connects residents with the city.
"That was a vision of mine when I first came into office," Cooke said. "You are showing the results of that not only by tonight's forum but by the clean-up projects and the improvements being made to the neighborhoods and neighbors knowing neighbors."