Committee on Economic Resiliency & Regional Relations
2013-2014 City budget review underway
With the Mayor's delivery of the draft 2013-2014 City budget, the annual City Council budget review and adoption work has begun. As in the past few years “post-recession” (those are ironic quote marks, by the way), the City's revenue runs short of expenses, but this year not as badly as in past years.
Under the Mayor's draft proposal the City would still lay off employees and departments would cut their overall budgets. Since the shortfall doesn't look to be as large as first envisioned, the Mayor's plan would redirect some funds to restore some previous cuts (partial restoration of community center hours, restarting hiring for police officers, an inflation adjustment for social service providers) and even start a few new projects (new job training, new slots for childcare and homeless families, planning for new mass transit lines).
The Council's job now is to carefully review the proposed spending plan to make sure it truly matches our priorities and urgent needs, and that it's not overly ambitious given the tentative economic recovery. I'll be looking to make sure we invest smartly in emergency needs, public safety, and basic infrastructure. Tax dollars are always precious and I take our job on the spending plan seriously – especially when we're still laying off hard-working city employees.
This work will run until just before Thanksgiving with a final vote on Monday, November 19 – and we need your help. The first public hearing was held October 4, and a second will be held Thurs., Oct. 25, 5:30 p.m., in City Council Chambers.
If you'd like to learn more about the 2013-2014 city budget and the Council's review, check out the page.
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Medical Marijuana – zoning and threading the legal needle
When we all voted in 1998 to allow people with chronic or terminal illness access to marijuana, we didn't vote on how that access should happen. More recently, the changing national conversation about the war on drugs and wider acceptance of marijuana as a medical treatment, have prompted more serious forays into production and provision, despite federal law. Over the past two years the state legislature has tried, but failed to set out a clear structure for producers and providers to follow.
We do know the following from state efforts:
- Collectives (not necessarily non-profit) seem to be the business model.
- No collective can have more than 45 plants on hand.
- No collective can have more than 72 ounces of marijuana on hand.
That's about what we know, but it's not much when it comes to regulating a new type of business, especially one that may attract the wrong kind of entrepreneur into neighborhoods. We want to give any new business owner the benefit of the doubt, though. We've talked with several responsible local medical marijuana shop operators who have been very helpful in discussing how to regulate for potential traffic, odor control and other typical business operation concerns.
Like a lot of people I've been surprised by the sheer number of medical marijuana shops opening up in Seattle. The new shops mean better access for patients. However, they exist in a legal gray zone that leaves local jurisdictions like Seattle to make up new rules for this new kind of business. Councilmember Nick Licata and I have a draft zoning proposal to guard against possible impacts of production and provision, and will visit community councils and district councils this fall to talk about it and gain input.
The draft proposal Councilmember Licata and I developed with staff and these responsible business operators, proposes restrictions on medical marijuana in single-family zones and low-intensity business districts (NC-1 zones), as well as in our historic and special districts. Additionally, the proposal sets out rules for what happens if someone proposes producing medical marijuana in an industrial area.
Many people have asked, "What do the feds say about this?" Recently, the feds busted a handful of operators in this state for operating sham storefronts and for operating within 1,000 feet of a school. At some point we as a state and country will come to terms with marijuana as a crime or medicine or recreational substance. For now, we in Seattle will try to stay true to the vote Washington took in 1998, enable patient access and do it in the way that works for neighborhoods.
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Yesler Terrace proposal moves ahead
It was no small feat coming to agreement at the start of September on the changes to come to Yesler Terrace. After several months of careful work we voted unanimously for a plan that will remake the neighborhood just to the east of Downtown over I-5, between First Hill and Little Saigon.
I'm grateful to all of the residents, community stakeholders, Seattle Housing Authority staff, City staff, and my council colleagues who worked to create what I believe will be a great future for Seattle's oldest public housing development.
Beyond all others, I want to commend the Yesler Terrace Citizens Review Committee, a group of Yesler Terrace residents and other community stakeholders. These people volunteered evenings and weekends for six years so we could have a redevelopment plan that takes into account today's Yesler community while building tomorrow's. They're also the group who came up with the visionary guiding principles for redevelopment:
- SOCIAL EQUITY
- ECONOMIC OPPORTUNITY
- ENVIRONMENTAL STEWARDSHIP & SUSTAINABILITY
- ONE-FOR-ONE REPLACEMENT HOUSING
In technical wonk terms, the redevelopment plan is what we call "a big deal." The new Yesler Terrace neighborhood (to be built out in phases over 20 years) will continue to house approximately 1,200 very low-income residents in 561 units—maybe 100 more if profits from land sales are higher than expected. Instead of the two-story townhouses spread over the area now, we'll likely see these new apartments happen in six or eight-story buildings. There will also be 1,200 new slightly more expensive, but still income-restricted units, ripe to house people working a short walk away to Downtown.
Yesler will become a more modern, mixed-use and mixed-income neighborhood. To help pay for the new low-income housing, parks, streets, sidewalks, and utilities, SHA will sell portions of the 22-acre site for development of approximately 2,800 market-rate housing units, 900,000 square feet of office and medical service space, and 150,000 square feet of retail and services. The neighborhood should look and feel more like the neighborhoods near it on First Hill.
The new Yesler will also have community gardens, pocket parks, more trees than are currently present, and pedestrian pathways leading through the neighborhood and into the International District/Chinatown, Little Saigon and First Hill.
I heard from a lot of people during our work on Yesler and most of those messages contained doubts about how current residents will fair in the redevelopment. In Council's deliberations on the proposed rezones, street changes, agreements and design rules, we came back again and again to questions of how the current residents will be supported in the upheaval of redevelopment. Being uprooted is a terrible feeling and it's compounded if you don't speak the dominant language and don't understand the ways of the bureaucracy. A few of the safeguards in place:
- SHA has issued each Yesler resident a guarantee certificate ensuring their right of return.
- Every Yesler household receives relocation assistance that's right for their circumstances. For some that will mean moving to another SHA home in Seattle, but for others they may choose to move further away. If a voucher or other help is available, some may move out of public housing.
- Every tenant will receive a minimum of 18 months notice as to when they'll need to move.
- SHA is required to work with the Yesler Terrace Community Council and the Citizens Review Council to address any resident problems during relocation.
Yesler is an historic gem in the heart of our city. Not only was it the first public housing development in Washington when it opened in 1941, it was the first in our nation to be racially integrated. It was the one time home to former Washington governor Gary Locke and guitarist Jimi Hendrix. It's served us well for more than 70 years and is well deserving of a makeover. The Seattle Housing Authority Plan for Yesler is ambitious and relies on market forces more than any public housing redevelopment plan here has. It will require vigilance on the part of residents, advocates and the Council to make sure we get it right.
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Retirement Accounts – helping small businesses provide options for employees
Who doesn't feel like they need to save more for retirement? OK, I mean among regular people. I've met a few people (like a potential men's basketball team owner) who I don't think worry. For too many people, there's no easy way to save for retirement. Maybe you're a solo business person or your employer simply doesn't provide retirement. Maybe you are the employer and setting up a retirement saving option for employees looks complicated and expensive to you.
Currently, just 10% of American businesses with fewer than 100 employees offer retirement plans compared to 66% of companies with 100 or more. When asked about why they don't provide plans, these small- to medium-sized companies give reasons similar to those voiced by individuals: available plans look complicated, it takes too much time, and it's too easy to procrastinate.
Earlier this year the Economic Opportunity Institute started talking with councilmembers about this gap in retirement accounts for employees of small companies and how to increase the number of small businesses providing plans for employees. One idea I'm pursuing is for the city to use its power as a convener to draw together financial planning experts and local retirement plan operators to devise a more simple set of plan options, and for the city to help get that information out to businesses around town. We provide assistance to all sorts of businesses in Seattle. This would be one more element of technical assistance.
My interest in this stems from my commitment to see more people in Seattle gain financial stability. Saving for retirement is one important component of financial stability. I hope smaller employers will increasingly recognize that providing access to a retirement account is easier and less costly than they think, and will help attract and keep great employees.
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Economic Development Commission Edges Closer to Existence
If you read or listen to the news much, you know we all talk about the economy almost as much as we talk about the weather and often in similar terms. If you're a city thinker, it can be hard to know what to believe and which way to move.
So, you ask for help.
In Seattle we have many commissions and boards advising on an array of public policy issues. We've had special, short-lived task forces advising on economic development, but never a permanent commission on economic progress in Seattle. That's about to change.
Councilmember Richard Conlin initiated the idea of an economic development commission through Council Bill 117362 when he was chair of the Council's economic development committee last year. I've taken over the economic development portfolio and I'm working with him, as well as the Mayor, to seat the commission and to define its initial charge.
Our hope is to gather a group of 10 people who can help steer the Mayor, Council and others to steps that spread prosperity, ensure opportunity for jobs and business starts, and move us to invest in the right infrastructure – all in hopes that people choose Seattle for businesses that contribute to our communities through their values and hiring.
We'll start the work by asking the commissioners to review the plans already out there from the Puget Sound Regional Council, the Greater Seattle Chamber of Commerce, the Downtown Seattle Association, the Port of Seattle, former and existing City plans, and others to cull the Seattle-specific recommendations. We want to invite fresh thinking, but, also, to avoid recreating the wheel.
Next time I write about this I hope to be able to share the names of the new commissioners.
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Vigor Shipyard guides around wide-eyed councilmembers
Some people ask, "Hey, should we go to the zoo or the aquarium today?" Me? I ask, "When can we get into the Vigor complex?" That's why I chair the economic development committee.
When I took over the Committee on Economic Resiliency & Regional Relations I started doing occasional tours of interesting work sites. It's great to get out of the office and, difficult as the feedback may sometimes be, it's great to go into someone else's shop to hear how they're doing, what the City of Seattle can do to help and what the City of Seattle could do differently.
Councilmember Sally Bagshaw and I were invited to tour Vigor Industries in early August. If you're not familiar with Vigor, you might know the old Todd Shipyards. Vigor bought Todd, and now builds and repairs boats (wait, am I supposed to say "ships"?) in several port cities in the Northwest and Alaska. In Seattle, Vigor's yard sits on the north end of Harbor Island. It's hardcore Seattle blue collar work. It can be very cyclical, though. They might be able to use every skilled welder they can find for a year on a project, but then not have enough work for all those people for an eight-month break before the next ship arrives. At those peak times, they join the ranks of all the other major businesses in the area who say they can't find enough skilled workers for the jobs available.
In the picture below, I'm standing under the "raw" hull of a new Washington state car ferry. This was a great example of the links between the work on land and the work in the water. We watched teams of workers begin to connect together the multiple compartments that make up the inside of a ferry. That work was like a giant puzzle inside a big barn of a building while more connecting and welding of compartments happened outside on pavement. At some point, all the pieces go inside or on top of the hull before they launch the beast out of the warehouse and out into the water.
Vigor and other marine industry are critical parts of Seattle's economic success. Through a diverse jobs base people around here have a wider variety of job options and better chances to make a place for themselves and their families.
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Get Ready to Vote
As I type this message in mid-September I'm sitting in the SeaTac Hilton Conference Center listening to candidates for governor, attorney general and state auditor talk their talk to city councilmembers and mayors from all over Washington. The Association of Washington Cities organized the forum so candidates would have a focused forum to discuss how they would address the financial, infrastructure and economic development problems facing cities. The room is filled with people who care about more simple regulation, equitable sharing of revenue, full investment in education, sidewalks in Sequim, data capacity in Walla Walla, bridge repair in… well, bridge repair everywhere. We'll hear today from the candidates for governor, attorney general and state auditor.
When you vote this fall, be that person who votes the whole ballot. I took a class in July where we talked a bit about voting patterns in the United States. For the type of ballot we in Washington use, pretty much all of us vote at the top of the ballot. That's the marquee race, this year the choice for President of the United States. Unfortunately, the further down the page you go, fewer and fewer of us fill a circle. That means a much smaller number of people in our state make the decisions on the other races and the initiatives at the bottom of the page or on the flipside of the sheet.
In the age of voting by mail (otherwise known as "voting at the kitchen table with a bag of snacks, the Voter's Guide and the internet"), there's no reason for the kind of voter "roll-off" that still happens. Don't recognize any of those judge candidate names? Boggled by the initiatives and referenda? Check the printed voter's guide you'll receive in the mail or any of the various voter guides you'll find on the web in the three weeks leading up to November 6.
The down-ballot races matter as much as those top-of-ballot. You matter. Your voice moves the future. It's a big, important ballot this fall – president, governor, attorney general, secretary of state, state auditor, state legislative races, marriage equality and more. Thanks in advance for voting the whole ballot!
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