Kent’s four mayoral candidates agreed on many things – from responsible spending to enhanced livability – during a residents-sponsored 90-minute forum.
Each shared similar concerns and varying approaches to tackling Kent’s problems du jour on June 28 at First Christian Church.
Different in style, tone and scope, each offered ways to address the city’s gloomy financial forecast, support vital public services, enhance schools, help the homeless and manage rapid growth and development.
City Council members Jim Berrios and Dana Ralph, former councilwoman Elizabeth Albertson and political newcomer Andrew Swansen responded to panelists’ questions on several issues. Each had their bright moments, delivering key points and drawing applause from the audience. The four also participated in a forum June 27 at Kent-Meridian High School.
The race continues as candidates scramble for votes with the Aug. 1 primary election about 4½ weeks away. The two candidates with the most votes in the primary advance to the Nov. 7 general election. King County Elections will mail ballots for the primary on July 12.
Mayor Suzette Cooke decided not to pursue a fourth term.
The next mayoral debate is July 12, a Kent Chamber of Commerce-sponsored luncheon, from 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. at the Meridian Valley Country Club, 24830 136th Ave. SE. For details, tickets and registration, visit kentchamber.com or call 253-854-1770.
Spun from a discussion over cost-saving measures the city should consider, the city-owned ShoWare Center – long considered by many residents and officials as a financial albatross – occupied center stage.
Critical of the venue, Berrios acknowledged steps have been taken to lessen operating costs as he continues to challenge ShoWare’s management, the SMG group, to book more quality shows.
Still, he and his rival, Ralph, cannot ignore the building’s heavy losses and its price of doing business while occupying a large lot off West James Street.
“What I’m saying is by 2034 the city is going to have to write off over $130 million because of the ShoWare,” Berrios said. “That’s astounding.”
Ralph – noting the center is making progress in stemming financial losses – will continue to hold SMG accountable.
“And what’s not being talked about is the $5 million house payment on the building we have not made a penny towards,” she added.
“It’s an asset to this community. It’s a great gathering place. … It helps support Kent Station, no question about that,” Ralph said. “We have to be strategic and embrace that building. It’s here in our community. It’s a part of us, and it does good things.”
Albertson, who served on the council from 2006 to 2013 when the center was built in an unfavorable recessionary climate, proposed that the city drops its contract with SMG, a cost savings of about $400,000 a year, by her estimate. The city could bring those ShoWare employees “in house” so they have the same treatment, benefits as other city employees.
Albertson called ShoWare “a gem,” adding it “broke my heart we had to open it up during the recession.”
Swansen’s take? “It’s a big building we don’t fill enough,” he said, proposing perhaps a change in management.
More badges, please
The candidates generally agreed that Kent Police are understaffed and overworked, reflected in heavy overtime costs and compared with other city forces.
Still, the city must make public safety its top priority as a growing community deals with rising gun violence.
“It’s my No. 1 item,” said Swansen, a chief information officer for Seattle Colleges. “We have to create a balanced budget, but fund public safety, our first-responders, and other critical programs.”
Use city expertise
The city has frequently hired expensive consultants or outside contractors on projects.
That practice should end, said Ralph, adding the city needs to start embracing technology to run more effectively and efficiently.
“We have to get smart in how we are spending our money,” she said.
Loss of green space
The recent sale and forthcoming development of the par 3 golf course at revenue-sapping, city-owned Riverbend Golf Complex irk Albertson, who fears other developers will follow, asking for tax-exempt help on their projects.
“And that’s the slippery slope we’re now on,” she said.
“One of the things that inspired me to run in this race, even at a late time, was the (property) tax abatement (that) was given to the folks who are developing on what I regard as one of the most beautiful … properties in Kent,” Albertson said of the par 3 course. “… And once you sell it, you lost it.”
Ralph pointed out that she voted against the sale of the city-owned course. The 18-hole course remains.
Berrios said the City Council and Kent School District should work more closely together on issues. A recent gathering, he said, proved productive. Other community partners, including faith-based groups, must collaborate to solve problems.
“In doing so, you establish a rapport,” he said. “We all need to work together to address issues with our kids.”
The other candidates echoed similar thoughts.
Swansen added that “keeping kids busy after school is the key factor in really creating a good, livable community.”
Each candidate took turns in saying no to allowing safe-injection sites in the city for heroin and other drugs.