Kent Mayor Dana Ralph discovered just four months into her new job that she’s going to have to roll with the punches when it comes to city issues – even a punch to the gut.
Ralph opened her first State of the City address Thursday night at City Hall with what she called, “a sad note” because voters rejected by 57 to 43 percent on April 24 a utility tax hike to 8 percent from 6 percent to hire 23 more police officers.
“I can’t express how disappointed I am that this didn’t pass because this was a really important thing for all of us,” Ralph said. “I have to believe it was a vote against taxes and not a vote against our police department.”
Ralph emphasized that she will ask the City Council to refer a ballot measure again to voters later this year for money to hire more officers.
“Without this funding source, we are not able to provide the level of community policing that our residents expect and deserve,” she said. “We hear from people we want officers in our schools, out in the community and to be a part of what’s going on. With the limited force we have, that’s not a reality. … We will work hard to educate voters about the need for more officers.”
The mayor also made it clear she has no plans for any cuts to the police department as city leaders try to figure out how to deal with the fiscal cliff facing Kent over the next two years as it loses nearly $10 million in state revenue.
“We will be looking at cuts in all other departments,” Ralph said. “We will not be cutting our police department – that is my commitment to you.”
The anticipated shortfall will be caused by the loss of streamlined sales tax mitigation (starting in 2019) and the expiration of the Panther Lake annexation sales tax credit (in 2020). The city also has a structural budget deficit of about $2 million a year because expenses grow at a faster pace than property tax revenues limited to 1 percent hikes, although Kent recently used banked property tax capacity to exceed the 1 percent increase.
The state uses the streamlined sales tax mitigation to help compensate Kent for revenue lost when legislators changed the state in 2008 from an origin-based system for local retail sales tax to a destination-based system, gutting the tax revenue the city received from its large warehouse district. The city also will lose about $4.7 million it receives each year for the Panther Lake annexation in 2010, an expiring 10-year agreement between the state and the city to help cover expenses in that area of about 24,000 people.
“It’s going to be a combination of finding new revenue sources and cutting costs anyway we can, just like you would do at your house when your revenue goes down, when your income goes down, you have to figure out what is it that you can do without, and that’s the conversation that we’re having here at the city,” Ralph said. “We’re going to make these hard decisions and it’s going to include cutting services, programs and staff.”
School district issues
Ralph said even though the city doesn’t help oversee or fund the Kent School District, the ongoing questions about the financial affairs of the district impact everyone.
“One of the issues that shook our community the hardest this year is seeing the struggle that the Kent School District has endured,” she said. “Our teachers work in Kent. Our kids live in Kent. We owe it to them to ensure a strong and stable school district.”
Ralph praised the work of the Kent Education Association, which represents teachers.
“I am very proud of the advocacy of the Kent Education Association and the work that they have done on behalf of their members, and most importantly our students,” she said along with recognizing the presence of KEA President Christie Padilla in the audience at City Hall. “We simply cannot afford to sacrifice our hard-working teachers or amazing students.”
Ralph said she met for 90 minutes on April 25 with Superintendent Calvin Watts.
“We are working on things, we have plans and we are going to make sure that the city is here to support our district,” Ralph said.
Voters approved two measures for the district in February and the state kicked in millions of dollars to the district, but cutbacks continue because of inaccurate budget forecasts in previous years. Teachers, students and residents continue to try to get more answers about the budget problems from Watts and the Kent School Board.
Marquee on Meeker
The mayor spoke highly of the Marquee on Meeker project for nearly 500 apartments to be built at the site of the former city-owned Riverbend par 3 golf course. Work started in early April across from the city’s 18-hole course. The city sold the property for $10.5 million to a mixed-use project developer.
“This is going to be a high-quality housing development with retail and a restaurant,” she said. “It will provide an attractive gateway into our city. I was not supportive of selling the par 3, but we could not have a better project coming to that location.
“I know this is going to be probably our highest-quality development that we have in the city.”
Ralph said she also looks forward to the city finding a developer to build a high-quality hotel on 2 acres of the Naden property just north of Willis Street near Highway 167.
Ralph, who served six years on the City Council before running for mayor, certainly brings a new leadership style to Kent.
While former Mayor Suzette Cooke typically held her annual State of the City speeches at the accesso ShoWare Center and spoke from behind a podium, Ralph delivered her address in Council Chambers. She stood out in the open, at the opposite end of the room from where the council normally sits, to speak to the crowd.
Ralph even threw some fun into the event as she opened her address by leaving the room, telling everyone to hold on for a second. The crowd then watched a six-minute comedic video on flat screens that showed Ralph driving from City Hall throughout town trying to find the notes for her speech by retracing previous stops at a park, construction site, pie shop and other places where she ran into city department heads who were no help in finding the lost notes.
Finally, the mayor found her notes in her Jeep and returned to City Hall to deliver her speech.
In another change to a State of the City address, Ralph spent the last 10 minutes or so answering questions and taking comments from the audience.
One woman told Ralph she understood her concern about the failure of the police measure.
“I know you feel bad,” the resident said. “You didn’t look too good in those pictures (on the Kent Reporter website after results were released). Neither did the chief of police. But be patient with the residents of Kent, there are too many things going on. The big fiasco with the Kent School District is something that trickles down.”
Another resident asked Ralph if she sees herself doing the same job in eight years.
“I can only hope that the community continues to have trust in me,” Ralph said. “This is my dream job, and I mean that from the bottom of my heart. Taking care of this city, there’s nothing better.”
• To watch the mayor’s speech and her opening comedic video after the national anthem, go to this link: vimeo.com/266914330.