by Jack Mayne
Two still unseated SeaTac City Council members went before the Des Moines City Council on Thursday night to tell its members to not believe its staff on advice about a proposed 16 percent utility tax to balance its budget for the next two years.
Mayor Dave Kaplan lashed at the two, saying they had no business coming to his city to tell them how to run his city, adding that one of the SeaTac people had “another agenda” and that he would not go to their city and give unsolicited advice.
Retiring Councilmember Bob Sheckler, also a former Des Moines mayor, said in his 20 years on the Council, that he’s “seen a lot of political tricks and a lot of politicians that think they are really hot and really aren’t.
Observers said the actions of the two from SeaTac were surprising. City councilmembers virtually never go to another city and publicly lecture its governing body on how to raise budget money or telling the other city’s leaders not to believe their own staff advice.
‘Please don’t believe them’
Rick Forschler, former and soon to be again a SeaTac Councilmember, told the Des Moines Council he respected them but he might say things they might not like to hear.
“The city staff here will likely tell you that the utility taxes are necessary in order to make the budget meet – please don’t believe them.” He added “sorry Tony” to City Manager Tony Piasecki.
“I know these special purpose districts very well,” Forschler said. “They operate efficiently, they live within their means. There is very little, if any, waste…
“Long before we consider raising taxes, we should exhaust all other options,” Forschler said, “including competitive contracting services … if used wisely would save from 10 to 30 percent of those costs.” Then he listed other cities that had reduced costs by better managing the services of city contractors.
“I have these same sort of comments last year to the SeaTac City Council,” he said. “They ignored them.”
Forschler said “a major reason” four SeaTac Council lost the election was the 6 percent utility taxes they had approved.
Then he turned to the citizens in the Des Moines audience and addressed them.
“Will the voters among you raise your hands, please. Write down the name Rick Forschler and if these folks,” gesturing to the Council members, “impose that utility tax contact Rick in SeaTac and I’ll help you do the same thing we did in SeaTac.
“I’m sorry, but we need to protect these small districts, they do well, they work efficiently and you are doing a disservice to your citizens if you don’t consider these alternatives for saving money first.”
He got long and loud applause from the Des Moines citizens in the Council chambers.
Soon to be SeaTac Councilmember Peter Kwon, recently elected, and former and soon to be again City Councilmember Rich Forschler told the Des Moines Council of the utility tax increase approved in SeaTac last year that he said resulted in four Council members being voted off that city’s Council.
“Please listen to your citizens and at least put it to a vote,” he said. Kwon takes his SeaTac Council seat in January.
Kaplan blasts ‘ludicrous’ duo
At the later Councilmember comment period, Kaplan addressed the appearance of Forschler and Kwon, “people form a city that don’t even live here.”
Referring to Forschler, Kaplan said, “I have a great deal of respect for you but Des Moines is not SeaTac. We don’t have a bunch of hotels, we don’t have a parking tax, we don’t have a $30 million a year budget like you do. We don’t have the same economic base.
“For you to come in and tell us what we need to do for our city and our citizens and the services we provide is ludicrous,” a visibly angry mayor said.
“It was our city that took the steps forward to get the SCORE (South Correctional Entity) jail built. Why? Because it saves us $350,000 a year in our jail costs.
“I get really frustrated with people who really don’t know what they are talking about when it comes to the finances of the city coming in and telling us – we’ve had these conversations publically in public forums year after year after year about our financial condition.
“I don’t appreciate you coming into our city and telling us how we should be conducting our business,” Kaplan said. “I wouldn’t presume to do the same thing in yours and hope that you and Mr. Kwan would keep that in mind when you take office in January.
Councilmember Bob Sheckler, said “the most disgusting thing I’ve seen any politician do was what Mr. Forschler did this evening.
“Imagine if we were to go over to SeaTac and do that, how would they think of us as a neighbor? Now, I think there is going to be quite a problem between Des Moines and the city of SeaTac. ”
A woman from the audience shouted out, “They are here to help us.”
“They are not here to help you, that is a political stunt,” Sheckler snapped back.
“You ask yourself what is Mr. Forschler really doing? He’s got some other ambitions; he’s got some other agenda.
“You never come into another’s city and do what he did, that’s disgusting,” Sheckler said, jabbing a pen in the direction of the woman in the audience.
Here’s video of Forschler and Kwon, along with responses from Mayor Dave Kaplan and Councilmember Bob Sheckler:
Ken Case, manager of the Midway Sewer District, regarding the proposed 16 percent gross tax on utility districts, said he is not confident that all Council members are seeing the comments of the district sent to the city. While a Councilmember said they were interested in proposed solutions to alleviate the tax, Case said his district has offered the solution of a franchise agreement that would pay to the city up to 6 percent of the district’s revenue, but the city has not responded and has rejected the suggested agreement.
Case said the city at a meeting suggested the sewer district could be taken over by the city if there was no agreement on the city tax. Such assumption of special purpose district is legal under state law with caveats including paying the district for certain property.
The city has acted in a punitive fashion, Case told the Council, noting that the city says that all money paid to the district for its services or service expansion would be taxed at 16 percent.
If the city and district can’t come to an agreement, Case said the sewer utility would consider suing the city but suggested negotiate a franchise or some other form of “win-win” agreement with the district.
Matt Everett, manager of the Highline Water District, said the district ratepayers are having a hard time getting by without additional taxes.
“Going from zero to 16 percent “seems amazingly high … especially in a year when people on Social Security are receiving zero percent raise,” Everett told the Council. The best agreement from his utility would be to work on a franchise tax agreement.
Several other residents objected to the proposed 16 percent utility district taxes and taxes in general, with some suggesting the city does not listen to their comments and complaints.
Suzy Gonzale a commissioner of the Southwest Suburban Sewer District said the district got a letter from City Manager Piasecki on Nov. 9 that said there was no progress on a franchise agreement, “but this is only partially true.” She said the district’s manager “did not respond on a couple of occasions but his requested modifications to the proposed agreement “were not considered by city staff.”
She said the city’s argument that utility taxes were not subject to negotiation “is not true” and that SeaTac and Normandy Park are negotiating a utility tax cap of 6 percent.
“I don’t understand how you can make this statement when other cities are doing so,” Gonzale said. “Why are you the only city within Puget Sound region unwilling to negotiate a utility tax within a franchise agreement? Why are you the only city dictating a 16 percent tax, 10 percent higher than anyone else?”
Gonzale also said the city has told them they have “unrestricted cash to we can afford to pay your imposed 16 percent utility tax. Do you have any idea what that money is earmarked for?”
The money is for designated capital improvements to the district’s system, she said.
Gonzale said the city told them it has “neither the time, nor patience to stretch out the negotiations,” which she calls the “most troubling” part of the city’s letter.
“You made absolutely no effort to reach out and discuss this with any of the utility districts or even the residents that will be financially affected by this new tax.”
The various districts involved have told the city they will explore a lawsuit if the tax is imposed.
Negotiate tax down
Councilmember Victor Pennington said he hoped the 16 percent could be negotiated down.
“We have to find a balance between all of us in the community because we are all invested in the community,” Pennington said.
Councilmember Sheckler said he expected the complaints from the special purpose districts but was concerned about comments that the city does not listen to people or “spending money on ludicrous things.”
Prior to putting the utility tax before the Council, Sheckler said “the same number of people that are here tonight were here and out the door that were very, very concerned that the Council was about to do something that they didn’t want to have happen …”
Those people spoke against cuts in the Parks and Recreation, especially senior programs and those for youth, and road repairs and “the thing we have been hearing a lot, the need for more police officers, he said, “people on the opposite side of the equation coming before us and demanding these things, too.”
Those requests were worthy, but he said he hoped citizens didn’t think they just making budget change “willy-nilly for more cash.”
“How do you keep everybody happy in politics? You definitely don’t,” Sheckler said. “Hopefully this evening maybe we can come to some sort of compromise.”
The Council had to weigh both sides, he said.
Hard to do things right
Mayor Pro-Tem Matt Pina agreed, and that many things have happened to change the way Des Moines is financed. Where once it was possible to exist as a bedroom community, now the “law has slowly changed.”
“We are a bedroom community that no longer can be that because you can’t generate enough revenue through property tax or any other means to really sustain yourself and sustain the essential services.”
Pina said the city is working hard to get “things right” like the business park and other moves to improve the financial situation for Des Moines.
Councilmember Luisa Bangs said her six months on the Council have been tough one coming up with a budget and getting to “a better state of affairs in this city.”
“It is our job to listen to you in terms of where you want it to come from. Sometimes we don’t have a choice, it is not easy. As a new Councilperson, we are going to do our best and if ‘best’ isn’t enough, my God, we’ve got to do something,” Bang said. “It’s taxes and it’s cuts.
“I don’t think its we don’t hear you,” she said. “There is nothing easy about what we hear today but hopefully in the future it will be a lot better.
Councilmember Melissa Musser said she was offended at someone saying all of the “people up here” are the same, they don’t care.
When no one comes to meeting, Musser said, “it is quiet happiness, there is nothing to complain about.
“But, man, you want to get to come to a meeting, levy a special assessment, raise their taxes, do something controversial and people come out and then you learn who your community is …”
She said that “you citizens should be ashamed of yourselves” because two Council seats on the latest election were uncontested.
“I hope to see all of you on the ballot in two years, because that means you care, that you are engaged,” returning to the audience comments that many commenters have made during Council session of late, adding that many committees go begging for volunteers.
“Please, stay engaged,” Musser told the audience. “Just because the controversy goes away doesn’t mean there is not still stuff happening in our city. I hope you people stay engaged.”
Mayor Kaplan said, “The Council does care.”
In 1999, Initiative 695 passed “it eliminated the welfare check our city was getting in the form of sales tax equalization to the tune of somewhere between $1.5 million and $2 million a year.”
Since then the city had been trying to do what it could to “sustain the services that you told us you want.” The voters pass an initiative “that caps the amount of property taxes we collect on an annual basis.”
“So if you collect $2.5 million worth of property tax one year, you can collect a whopping $25,000 the next,” Kaplan said. “That doesn’t pass our utility bill increase the following year, let along (cost of living) increases or other things for operating the city.”
“Since 1999 we have reduced staff in the city by 30 percent. Name another city that can say that. In the last eight years, we have reduced by 20 percent, a number of those were police positions.
“Do our communications need to import? Yes,” said Kaplan. “We have had talks about the utility tax going back to Aug. 8. Should there have been more direct communication with the utility districts prior to October, yeah, we own that.