MAKING IT WORK
The purpose of this newsletter is to provide information, inspire involvement, and make things work in this great city. You can request additional information or comment on the newsletter by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org
RENEWING SEATTLE’S ECONOMY
The Council is working to complement national economic recovery efforts with actions that can be taken at the local level. We have met with economists and business leaders to identify possible strategies, and have begun our review of the federal stimulus package to identify opportunities for Seattle projects and proposals.
The City's budget remains in relatively good shape compared to the State and most other local governments, but revenues are falling below even our very conservative projections. At the end of March we will begin a three week process to reduce expenditures in the light of an estimated $25 to $30 million revenue shortfall (about 3% of projections) caused by the sagging economy. The process will begin with a public hearing on Thursday, March 26, beginning at 5:30 PM in the Council Chambers, followed by budget meetings on the following three Mondays. Please plan to attend the public hearing, or submit comments to the Council, if you have thoughts or suggestions.
The Council is committed to developing partnerships to support economic stability and renewal, to meeting the basic needs of people in distress as a result of the recession, to working with businesses to promote employment and business activity, to promoting opportunities to strengthen our communities, and to positioning Seattle to be poised for the next economy when the recession ends.
Specific steps and ideas currently under consideration include:
- Assemble panels of economic experts, business community members, and employment/retraining professionals to advise the Council on the state of the local economy and potential policy responses.
- Promote a "Buy Local" message and continue work to promote local, in-city food production, including p-patches, community gardens, and perhaps "Victory Gardens".
- Identify Federal Stimulus Package funding opportunities - with a focus on near-term needs but also longer-term recovery.
- Accelerate City capital investments, including recognizing that accelerated design will provide stimulus to architects and others, even if immediate construction is not feasible. (Projects funded by Seattle Public Utilities, City Light, and the transportation and parks levies are potential targets for acceleration.)
- Track the status of City's apprenticeship programs and ensuring that they are fully enrolled.
- Reorganize the City's Office for Economic Development for maximum effectiveness.
- Consider tax relief and incentives that might assist business.
- Review and monitor human service programs to ensure that they serve those newly in need, including implementation of the Council's work to develop a comprehensive strategy to address hunger and malnutrition.
- Monitor foreclosure rates and examine possible policy steps for foreclosure prevention.
- Review funding and ensure that there is capacity for enrollment in region-wide apprenticeship and job training programs (such as Seattle Jobs Initiative and PortJobs), and work with community colleges and labor unions to broaden cooperation and identify opportunities.
- Create a small business strategy in cooperation with local Chambers.
- Cooperate with the Port to promote export business and link with green economy development, and include a focus in green business and green jobs in OED's reorganization.
The Council is looking for additional ideas and suggestions. Please email me at email@example.com with your thoughts.
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COUNCIL PASSES TREE PROTECTION
On Monday, February 23, the Council approved my ordinance to establish new interim tree protections that will limit tree removal on virtually all single family and commercially zoned properties in Seattle (only single family properties of less than 5000 square feet are exempted). The new tree protection ordinance will help to conserve our rapidly disappearing tree canopy – the reason Seattle was nicknamed the Emerald City. The Council vote was 8 to 1 (McIver voting no).
The Council has previously adopted a Comprehensive Plan policy goal of reversing the decline of Seattle's tree canopy cover, now measured at about 18% of land area, and grow it to 30% over the next few years. This turnaround will require planting new trees, taking better care of existing trees to protect their health, and taking steps to prevent the removal of healthy trees. This interim measure is the first step in putting a set of policies in place to achieve those goals. These policies will include incentives to reward property owners for protecting and increasing tree cover, as well as better practices to maintain city owned trees and increase their number.
Protecting mature trees from unnecessary removal is intended to prevent clear-cutting of the city's tree canopy. Trees have great ecological value: they reduce storm water runoff and pollution, absorb air pollutants and carbon dioxide, provide wildlife habitat and shade, stabilize soil, and enhance property values. They thus contribute to fighting the effects of global warming, mitigate flooding and the toxic effects of storm water run-off, promote community, and keep Seattle an attractive, vibrant city.
Council Bill 116404 limits tree removal to no more than three trees of 6 inches or greater in diameter per lot in any one year period on single-family zoned lots that are at least 5,000 square feet, or on any sized lot in a lowrise, midrise or commercial zone. It also prohibits the removal of exceptional trees. Normal and routine pruning of trees are exempt from the limits, as are removal of trees that are hazardous and trees whose removal is required for construction of a new structure under an approved building or grading permit. The new law also expands the definition of “exceptional tree” to include the phrase "group of trees".
The legislation balances the right of property owners to handle trees on their lots with our collective responsibility to manage urban development to keep our city a vital and desirable place to live.
See the complete ordinance here.
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OPEN GOVERNMENT PLAN PROPOSED
On Friday, February 27, 2009, I convened the first meeting of a new Special Committee for Open Government. I am Chairing this Committee, with Councilmember Harrell as Vice-Chair, and Councilmembers and Licata as members. The purpose of the Open Government Committee is to increase transparency in the City, including specific measures relating to the Council and Legislative Department. Beyond that, the Committee will also evaluate and seek to improve the effectiveness of citizen input into Council decision-making and increase the Council's access to citizen input. The committee will identify methods that will expand citizen engagement opportunities and increase the ease to which the public can access public documents.
The Committee's specific work plan is to:
- Review Legislative Department and City procedural changes that will improve the City's handling of public disclosure requests, with particular reference to the 2008 State Auditor's review and model guidelines developed by the State Attorney General.
- Discuss and vote an ordinance related to the State Audit recommendations and identify appropriate exemptions.
- Review Department policies and Council rules related to public disclosure and information requests and modify where needed.
- Discuss purpose and initial concept for Citizen portal and identify next steps.
- Review comments and suggestions from the public on how to increase transparency, access to documents and improve citizen input.
- Review the process for public input into major public-private partnership projects (known as the "Clean" process, after the acronym of the organization that originally sought this process) and identify any improvements.
- Identify and consider ways to improve citizen engagement in the Council's business including developing a range of options and opportunities for designing meetings, involving a broader range of people, new civic engagement methods and increasing effective two way communication between the Council and public.
- Incorporate the biannual review of Council Rules, and take a particular look at how the Council Rules might more effectively open up Council decision-making to public awareness and involvement.
The Committee is currently scheduled to meet on Friday mornings, from 9:30 to 11 AM, on March 20, April 17, May 1, and June 5. There will also likely be an evening public comment meeting, probably after the April 17 or May 1 meetings, when the Committee has specific proposals under consideration. The Committee is seeking both public comment on current proposals and ideas and suggestions for steps that the Council should consider. Please send any thoughts you have to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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WATER RATES AND FIRE HYDRANTS
Recently the Council had to address an arcane accounting issue relating to how to pay for fire hydrant services. The final plan was approved Tuesday, February 17 by a vote of 7 to 1 (Harrell voting no, Drago absent).
Although the press called it a ‘rebate’, this is not an accurate characterization. Fire hydrant service has been provided to the people of Seattle for the last 120 years, and no one has questioned the cost of the service. The Seattle Water Department was organized after the Great Seattle Fire of 1889 specifically to ensure that there was adequate water pressure in the City's fire hydrants.
The Court did not rule that the City 'illegally' charged for this service. What the Court said was that the money came from the wrong pocket -- that it should have come from a tax source, not a water rate. Of course, the taxpayers of Seattle are the same people who are water ratepayers... Even more ironically, the Court specifically ruled that it was perfectly fine for the City to raise the tax on the water utility to pay for the hydrants -- not even that the money had to come from another pocket, but from another compartment of the wallet. There is no legislative basis for the Court's ruling -- this law was created by the Court in a similar case concerning the City's streetlights. As soon as the streetlight case was decided, the Council recognized that hydrants could be next, and in 2004 changed the way that hydrants were paid for, from water rates to a tax on the water utility. There was no delay in doing this, and the Court affirmed that the City had acted properly in doing so.
The reason that this financial issue had to be addressed now is that the Court ruled in 2008 that the plaintiffs who brought the suit were entitled to back payments for the years 2001 to 2003, at 13% interest. Some 20% of these payments ($4.2 million) go to the law firm who brought the suit.
There is no magic source of these funds. The choice before the Council was either to increase revenues or cut the budget -- and that means libraries, or police, or human services, or some other important service. The budget is already very lean, and will get leaner since we know that revenues continue to drop even below the City's very conservative projections made last fall.
For the typical household, there will be a credit on the water bill of around $45, and a charge of about $59. Actual numbers are more complicated. The difference between these two numbers is the money that goes to the lawyers -- the only real winners.
The Mayor proposed that this transaction be done in a single utility bill. The Council modified that so that the refund would come immediately, and the charges would be spread over the next year and a half. Again, this will vary, but the average household will thus pay about $3 per month over this period. The advantage of this is that people and businesses will have $14 million in their pockets in the next two months -- kind of a mini-stimulus package -- and the payments will be spread out over time.
There is no easy way to do this. All the money that the City has comes from the residents and businesses of Seattle, and the Court ruling has to be complied with. The Council addressed this issue with care, explored a range of alternatives, and came up with a solution that is as reasonable as possible -- given the basically unfair and difficult situation that the Court ruling placed us in.
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RECYCLING BUILDING MATERIALS
On January 20, the Council unanimously adopted an ordinance to encourage recycling of construction waste – a key element of the Zero Waste Strategy. Construction waste is second only to food waste as a percentage of waste material currently sent to the landfill. Fortunately, construction waste is easily reclaimed and recycled with the right kind of incentives and regulations. This ordinance will ensure that materials will be reused or recycled from buildings that are demolished in order to construct a new building.
Current law requires a contractor to apply for both a demolition permit and a construction permit at the same time. This is done to prevent the loss of housing units, which could happen if a contractor demolished a house but then did not proceed with new construction.
Unfortunately, the permits are then issued at the same time, which turns out to be a perverse disincentive to recycling or reusing the materials from the demolished building. The fastest way to do demolition is to scrape the lot bare and throw it all away, and if a contractor has a building permit, the incentive is to get under construction as fast as possible since you don’t make any money until the building is finished.
So, this legislation changes the parameters. It continues to require that a building permit be applied for, but then allows the demolition permit to be issued while the building permit is still in process, provided that the applicant submits a waste diversion plan that specifies how a required percentage of each material in the demolished structure will be diverted from the landfill. It also allows the applicant to move the house to a new lot as an alternative to demolition – again, this takes time, so it doesn’t happen as often under the current practice. The legislation also includes substantial penalties if the diversion plan is not carried out.
Everyone benefits from this legislation. Materials – and even whole houses -- are reused or recycled, and the contractor has plenty of time to make sure that happens. The contractor gets to move to construction even faster, since he can have the lot completely cleared by the time he gets the building permit. And, the contractor will probably save money by being able to resell the materials, so the cost of the new building will be reduced. It’s the way government should work all the time – and a great demonstration of the practicality of the Zero Waste Strategy in action.
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"We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny."
-- Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr.
"Owners of capital will stimulate working classes to buy more and more expensive goods, houses and technology, pushing them to take more and more expensive credit, until their debt becomes unbearable. The unpaid debt will lead to bankruptcy of banks, which will have to be nationalized, and the State will have to take the road which will eventually lead to communism."
-- Karl Marx, 1867
Citizen participation and engagement are critical for maintaining democracy -- fostering it is a key task of elected officials. It's my hope that this newsletter will inform you about issues, inspire you to get involved, and that together we can make things work better in this great city. Please send me your feedback, so we can keep things lively, interesting, and useful. And please forward it along to friends who might be interested. You can get more information or send me feedback at email@example.com
Your Seattle City Councilmember
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