City finances, particularly those pertaining to parks and business and occupation (B&O) tax revenues, were among the topics discussed during a City Council candidate forum last week.
Four of the six candidates running for three City Council positions on the Nov. 7 general ballot took part in the forum hosted by the Kent Chamber of Commerce at the Golden Steer Steak ‘n Rib House on the East Hill on Sept. 6.
Satwinder Kaur and Paul Addis are vying for Position No. 2 to replace Jim Berrios, who is running for mayor and whose four-year term expires at the end of this year.
Toni Troutner and Tye Whitfield are running for Position No. 4 to replace Dennis Higgins, who decided not to seek re-election. Whitfield was not at the forum because of a long-standing family vacation.
Councilwoman Brenda Fincher is being challenged by Russ Hanscom for Position No. 6. Hanscom, the executive director of elder and vulnerable adult services for the Puyallup Tribe, pulled out of the forum the morning of event because he had to attend a meeting for work.
Council positions are part-time jobs that pay $14,808 per year.
Carmen Goers, co-chair of the Kent Chamber of Commerce Government Affairs Committee, moderated the forum.
Making parks a priority
The four candidates at the forum agreed funding the city’s aging parks needs to be a priority. In May 2016, an 18-member Financial Sustainability Task Force presented the council and mayor with a list of the top five priorities to keep the city financially viable. The recommendations were police staffing; street maintenance; economic development; sewer and water system maintenance; and information technology planning. While the four candidates agreed with the recommendations, each said they would like to see parks on the list.
“Parks are very important to the community,” Kaur said. “Our families depend on them for recreation because not everyone has money to travel to places. … Having parks is very important. It drives in more people to live in the city. It drives in more businesses.”
Kent Parks Director Julie Parascondola told the council in May that the city needs to provide sustainable funding for a system with a maintenance backlog of more than $60 million.
When asked how they proposed to fund parks during the forum, Fincher and Troutner suggested looking at the creation of a parks district.
“The parks, I think, would stand a much better chance of operating and being successful being able to use the money they need and paying that money if we had a parks district,” Fincher said. “I think we often discount the effect that parks have on the sustainability of the city.”
Troutner said before considering a parks district, the city would need to educate residents on what that means.
“I think there’s other ways to fund parks and make it sustainable and part of that is the tough decision of prioritizing the needs of our city, looking at the different departments and determining what our needs really are,” she said.
Addis said he would like to see the council consider parks sponsorships or a lottery to generate revenue.
“I believe in more free market volunteerism on that issue because people want to support it, but the money from the taxpayer isn’t necessarily there that it is going to take priority over things like public safety,” he said.
Kaur said she would like to see the city leverage resources such as the Green Kent Stewards program – which teaches environmental restoration to community volunteers who lead projects at sites throughout the city – state matching grants and looking at what works for other cities.
How the city should use revenue from its B&O tax has been an ongoing discussion for the council.
In May 2015, the council voted to spend all B&O revenue (after staff costs) on street repairs rather than a $4.7 million cap with excess funds used to pay down internal city debt in the capital improvement fund, which helps pay for streets, parks, information technology and other projects. The Chamber of Commerce has been in favor of using all funds for streets.
“I think the idea of the B&O tax on the businesses should be for the things the businesses are impacting,” Addis said. “If we need money for other stuff, it should come from the people that are using those things. … I think that need is going to grow. The amount of money is going to grow, so I don’t know that we will ever be able to do everything with the roads with just that money anyway.”
Kaur said she agrees the tax should be used for streets, unless it is agreed on by all parties to use it for something else.
“If it ever comes down to it, and the city, after looking at all the options, … needs to sit down with the businesses and the chamber to make sure it is an acceptable solution and not something we want to enforce without having a conversation,” she said.
Fincher echoed Kaur’s sentiments.
“I think that we don’t change it without having conversation,” she said. “I think that it is important to do what we say we are going to do.”
Troutner said since the tax has brought in more revenue than anticipated it would be worth re-evaluating how the money is spent. Revenue increased from $5.2 million in 2013 when the city started the tax to $9.3 million last year.
“I think having that discussion would be a smart thing for council to do, whether or not they decide to give money to another department is (another) piece,” she said. “But it is important to have that discussion.”
More forums planned
The Chamber of Commerce will host a mayoral candidate forum, featuring Jim Berrios and Dana Ralph, from 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. Friday, Oct. 6, at the ShoWare Center, 625 W. James St.
ILoveKent hosts a mayoral candidate debate on Thursday, Sept. 21, and a City Council candidate debate on Thursday, Sept. 28. Both debates are from 6 to 8:30 p.m. at the Kent Senior Center, 600 E. Smith St., and will be recorded and broadcast by Kent TV21. For more information, visit ilovekent.net/debates.