The final “Coffee with Harry” was held Thursday morning at Edmonds’ Chanterelle Restaurant. Hosted by Harry Gatjens, this session featured City Council Position 3 candidates Adrienne Fraley-Monillas, the incumbent, and challenger and former councilmember Ron Wambolt. The candidates fielded questions from a group of approximately a dozen citizens, with topics ranging from the predictable building heights to sources of campaign contributions and strategies to increase the city’s tax base.
Sources of campaign contributions:
One questioner asked about the sources of the two candidates’ monetary campaign contributions, noting that a significant part of Fraley-Monillas’ donations come from outside of Edmonds including labor unions, while Wambolt’s are largely from local developers and real estate interests who would benefit from being able to construct higher buildings than allowed by current codes. The candidates were asked whether these contributions would influence them to favor these interests.
Both candidates responded that as a city councilmember they would work for the interests of the Edmonds citizens and not for particular interest groups. Fraley-Monillas went on to stress that she has been involved in labor and union issues all her life, and that her supporters include the Boeing Machinists Union and the grocery clerks union. She also stated that she has received campaign contributions from private citizens across the political spectrum. She noted that none of her contributors would benefit in any way from higher buildings.
Controlling costs of city employee benefits:
Another citizen asked about the significant cost of Edmonds’ employee-related expenses (salaries, benefit packages, etc.), stating that the city budget “is dominated by these expenses,” and that these are out of line with similar costs in non-government sectors. The candidates were asked how they would propose to bring Edmonds’ costs in this area more in line with the private sector.
Fraley-Monillas responded that as a negotiator in the recent round of staff contracts for the city of Edmonds, she participated in a process that reduced the cost of employee health care packages by $500,000, and granted only a “modest” 1.5 percent salary increase. She also stated that she has worked to “hold the line” on these expenses for non-bargaining unit employees who were requesting the same benefits as in union contracts, observing that these are largely management personnel who are compensated at higher levels.
Wambolt stressed the importance of offering compensation packages that are competitive with other government and non-government entities, so that Edmonds can continue to attract high-quality employees.
Enhancing the tax base:
Another citizen question focused on generating more revenues for the city by enhancing the tax base. The questioner noted that neighboring cities have large industries and businesses (e.g., Mukilteo and Boeing) but Edmonds’ tax base is largely individual homes.
Wambolt responded that this is not a problem that can be solved overnight. He noted that a developer was interested in putting a hotel next to the current post office, but could not do so profitably within the current building height limits. While he opposes increasing height limits in the downtown core, he would take a critical look at other areas such as Firdale Village, where zoning could be made more attractive to developers. He concluded by saying that he sees development as the best source of new income, noting that the entire downtown core brings in less sales tax than one auto dealership.
Fraley-Monillas said that Edmonds only gets a small slice of property and sales taxes, as most goes to schools and other priorities. She went on to identify Highway 99 as key to expanding city’s tax base, citing as an example the development now underway at the Swedish/Edmonds campus including a $65 million triage center that will create “hundreds” of jobs. She stated that people moving in to take these jobs end up living not in Edmonds but in Mountlake Terrace, Shoreline and other areas, and that they spend their dollars in these communities rather than Edmonds. A development plan for the Highway 99 corridor that included businesses and housing for the workers attracted by these jobs would mean more money spent in Edmonds in addition to an enhanced tax base.
She went on to stress the need for Edmonds to adopt a “budgeting by priorities” approach that would be driven by community input. She noted that Mayor Earling has expressed interest in adopting this approach for the city general fund, a move she supports “100 percent.”
Building heights in the downtown core:
A citizen asked the candidates to clarify for the record the rules governing building heights in the downtown core, specifically the area zoned BD-1 roughly bounded by Bell Street on the north, Maple Street on the south, Sixth Avenue on the east, and Third Avenue on the west. She said that there is much public confusion over whether the limit is 30 feet, 25 feet plus 5 feet extra incentive, or something else.
Wambolt stated that prior to 2006, height limits were 25 feet with a possible addition of 5 feet for a “modulated” roof. In 2006 it was changed to a straight 30 feet. He added that additional rules for this area require that the first floor have a minimum 15-foot ceiling height, and that this in conjunction with a 30-foot overall height limit precludes three-story buildings in this zone. He also added that to construct such a building would require a minimum height of 33 feet, and that he is opposed to relaxing the current standard by “even a single inch.”
Fraley-Monillas stated that she opposed the move from 25 plus 5 to 30 feet, as she favors retaining the incentive to modulate roof lines.
When queried about how this might apply to a location like Harbor Square, Wambolt characterized Harbor Square as posing a choice. “Do you want taller buildings with open space around them, or do you want lower buildings and little or no open space.”
This raised questions about whether he would favor holding the line on building heights in the BD-1 zone, but allowing them outside of this. He responded by stating that he would “be willing to consider” raising height limits by 5 feet outside of this zone, but only if the plan was consistent with local design standards.
Continuing on the Harbor Square topic, the candidates were asked their assessment of local sentiment toward the recent Port of Edmonds proposal to develop an urban village on that site.
Fraley-Monillas stated her view that the Port plan was conceived and put forward by groups who generally supported the Port’s view of how the area should be developed, and that these did not represent the sentiments of the citizens of Edmonds who “clearly didn’t want it.” She looks forward to a more collaborative approach that would include the council and citizen input from across the opinion spectrum on this issue.
Wambolt disagreed, saying that during his recent exhaustive door-belling campaign he heard strong citizen support for the proposal that the port had originally put forth.
Both candidates would welcome an initiative that takes a vote of the people to better gauge public opinion on this issue.
The final question concerned the city’s recently-developed Strategic Plan, the observation that it “seems to not be moving forward,” and how to remedy this.
Fraley-Monillas suggested using some of the $600,000 set aside for Council-driven projects in the Mayor’s proposed 2014 budget for a part-time position tasked with identifying strategies for moving the Strategic Plan forward, and implementing these as appropriate.
Wambolt suggested regular status reports to the council from the Director of Economic Development regarding the progress of the plan, as a tool for the council to take action as needed to move the plan ahead.
The session concluded with a huge thank you to Randy and Brooke Baker for their generous hosting of “Coffee with Harry” at the Chanterelle.
— By Larry Vogel