Acknowledging Kent faces many challenges, Mayor Dana Ralph vows to do everything she can to advance her rapidly growing city.
“We have big city problems. I am not going to deny that, not dance around it,” Ralph told the audience at her State of the City address at the Kent-Meridian Performing Arts Center on the evening of March 14. “We have the same problems that a lot of our neighboring cities do, but we’re working hard every single day. …. We have incredible talent and opportunity. … This city is amazing … the voters elected me to do the job that I love.”
For Ralph and her staff, there have been setbacks, but the city has made significant strides during her first 15 months in office. Kent, like other cities of its size and nature, is growing and having to deal with traffic, crime, affordable living and homelessness.
Kent’s diverse population, which stood at more than 92,000 nine years ago, is nearly 130,000 today.
Bold in her message and undaunted in her plans, Ralph is leading change and new initiatives to make city government more transparent, accessible and accountable, Ralph urges everyone to join the movement, participate in the city’s progress and share in her vision for its future.
“Somebody asked me recently, ‘When you’re done being mayor at the end of your administration, what legacy do you want to leave?’” Ralph said during her 45-minute presentation. “I quickly realized there is really only one thing, it’s short and simple: get on board with Kent or get out of our way.
“For far too long, Kent has been a regional afterthought,” she said. “We get bad media coverage. We don’t get the funding that our neighbors do. We don’t get our fair share. I want to tell every single resident, every single business owner, all the elected officials and members of the press, I want to leave you with this note: those days are over.
“I will continue to stand up for our residents, our businesses and our future every single day,” Ralph said. “I don’t care if that means fighting for money to make sure we get our fair share of the funding. I don’t care if that means fighting a regional government to make sure our new burger place (Dick’s Drive-In on West Hill) doesn’t go away.
“I’m going to stand up and defend this city. I don’t care if that means calling reporters and saying, ‘Hey, that’s not quite what we said,’ or ‘that’s not the right thing.’ I don’t want anybody to have misconceptions about our city. I want to make sure our story is out there.”
Productivity, here and beyond the state, is healthy as more people and more jobs trickle into Kent and the Green River Valley. The mayor emphasized that Kent’s economy – in the land of Amazon, Boeing, Starbucks and Blue Origin – remains strong. Kent brought in more business and nearly 3,000 jobs in just over a year, Ralph said, adding that her goal is for the city to create 7,500 new jobs for the community by the end of her first term and to double that number by the end of her administration.
“Kent will be the place where people will come to work,” Ralph said.
But without guaranteed revenue streams from reliable state and federal coffers, Kent must adjust, Ralph said.
Kent is projected to lose about $4.7 million per year in annexation sales tax credit that ends in June 2020 for the 2010 Panther Lake annexation that added about 24,000 to the city’s population. The state established a 10-year funding program to help the city take on more residents. The city also could lose about about $5 million a year in streamlined sales tax mitigation, although city leaders hope the Legislature will bring Kent some financial relief.
“Times change and so do business models,” Ralph said. “… Ten years ago, the Legislature changed the way they distribute sales tax, and that hurts cities like Kent, cities that have a large distribution base. Kent was probably hurt the most than any other city in the state. But that means that is time for us to broaden what we are doing, look at our land uses that generate economy activity and make some changes.”
To get there, the city has a plan, Rally in the Valley, to examine and assess what is working here, what is not, and what Kent can do to market and attract advanced manufacturing and technology. The city recently hired Seattle-based Barokas Communications to provide public/media relations and marketing services over the rest of the year to promote the Kent Valley as a business destination.
“The valley can be so much more than what it is today,” Ralph said, “and Rally in the Valley will provide us the road map to do that.”
Other topics, highlights:
• Kent Police are overworked and understaffed. The city will add three police officers in each of the next two years as prescribed within its 2019-2020 operating budget.
“But it’s simply not enough,” Ralph said. “Our officers are still doing more with less. They’re protecting our neighborhoods, our businesses, all of us as we go about our business. They are being asked to go out there every single day, and there’s not enough of them. We are growing faster than our police department is.”
Kent voters soundly rejected a measure on last April’s special election ballot to raise city utility taxes to 8 percent from 6 percent to bring in about $4.5 million per year to hire 23 more police officers.
Committed to making investments into public safety services, Ralph plans to ask the City Council at “some point” to put the measure back on the ballot.
• Kent Police launched a pilot program last December to equip 10 officers with body-worn cameras. Ralph said the program will be rolled out to the rest of the department in the coming year.
• Kent Police are continuing efforts to become more community focused by inviting and engaging residents at regular meetings and coffee chats with the chief. Police, in partnership with the Human Service Division, have been exclusively focused on helping connect the homeless to services.
• Kent’s pioneering municipal-level Driving Under the Influence (DUI) Court, the state’s first, is making an impact, Ralph said. The DUI Court, launched by the Kent Municipal Court in the summer of 2017, is a specialized, comprehensive court program that provides individual treatment, supervision and accountability for repeat DUI offenders.
Instead of imposing maximum jail sentence, offenders are sent to DUI Court, requiring them to complete an intense two-year program of frequent court appearances, in-patient and outpatient treatment, random drug testing, regular sober support group meetings and community service.
The program has had no repeat offenders in the past 1½ years, Ralph said.
• A recently passed city ordinance will provide apprenticeship opportunities for Public Works projects in Kent with construction costs of $1 million or more.
“I promised I would find a way to work with the city, labor unions and workers to bring more training and opportunities for those in the building and construction trades,” Ralph said. “These are hard jobs and require skilled labor, and they are good-paying jobs that offer competitive salaries and benefits to workers and their families.”
• Ralph lauded the city’s Public Works crews during their response to February’s snowstorms. Crews worked 2,877 hours straight – covering 12-hours-on, 12-off shifts – to clear 230 miles of streets.
• On housing and neighborhoods, the city’s new rental inspection program is making landlords and managers of multi-family unit rental properties more accountable.
The mayor said there is a need for Kent to support a full range of housing opportunities – not just for one income group – built by quality developers, that are safe and secure.
Borrowing a Seattle program, Find It, Fix It, Kent has partnered with its neighborhood response teams to enforce codes regarding the upkeep of homes and properties. Residents can use a smartphone app to report a pothole, graffiti or an abandoned vehicle. City staff also plan to go to neighborhoods to identify, address and repair problems.
• The city is offering ways for residents to better connect and access services and information through convenient, online options.
“If people can see what we are doing, if they feel invested in what we are doing, and feel like their needs are being met, that resolves so much of that discontent and distrust (in government),” Ralph said.