Along with a handful of his fellow Liberty Lake citizens, Steve Peterson became a fixture at a series of year-end budget discussions that formed the groundwork for Liberty Lake’s 2011 financial blueprint.
Now the former mayor has begun work on returning to City Hall full-time.
Peterson made his bid official last week, filing papers as a candidate to replace current Mayor Wendy Van Orman who has announced she will not run for re-election this year. Van Orman defeated Peterson – who began serving as mayor of Liberty Lake when the city incorporated in August 2001 – by 61 votes in November 2007.
Looking back, Peterson said he should have made more of an effort to establish a more distinct platform from Van Orman, an original member of the City Council who helped establish the Sheriff’s Community Oriented Policing Effort branch in Liberty Lake.
“There was really just one side in 2007,” Peterson said. “I didn’t differentiate myself enough.”
Peterson was critical of the City Council’s decision to implement a 6-percent tax on phone, gas, electric and cable services last year as part of an attempt to bridge a projected $700,000 deficit for 2011. The failure of two statewide initiatives in November and a decision to scrap a pay raise for the mayor and council members left more money in the budget than originally anticipated.
The city also raised the property tax rate for the first time since incorporation – from $1.55 to $1.72 per $1,000 of assessed property value. Under Peterson’s tenure, the city consistently lowered property tax, though the former mayor acknowledges the decreases were made “in better economic times” when sales tax revenue was not taking such a hit.
During budget talks, Peterson spoke out in favor of a levy lid lift – similar to those utilized by the Spokane Valley Fire Department and Spokane County Library District – that would raise the property tax rate in Liberty Lake from to $2.10 per $1,000. Peterson said the move, which would require a simple majority of voters, makes more sense than a utility tax and could be written off on residents’ income tax.
“I’m concerned about the utility tax,” Peterson said. “What’s happening is we’re piecemealing instead of doing what we need to do to be successful from a financial standpoint.”
Part of the 2011 budget involved establishing a placeholder for a city administrator, a position that was part of the hierarchy at City Hall until Peterson parted ways with Lewis Griffin, Liberty Lake’s first and only city administrator, in 2005. Peterson said he would not support bringing the role back.
“It goes back to whether or not you have someone fulfilling the duties in a strong mayor form of government,” he said. “I think the mayor should be the overall adminstrator.”
Peterson, now retired and dabbling in real estate and construction, has stayed involved in the community since leaving office, joining the Liberty Lake Library foundation and phoning council members with questions about the latest city happenings. While the budget was being formed, he voiced strong concern over proposed cuts to the library and Trailhead at Liberty Lake Golf Course – two civic pillars that rose to prominence during his tenure.
“I think we need to maintain the vision of this community,” Peterson said.
If re-elected, Peterson said he would begin by “getting everybody on the same page and building trust.”
“I’m disappointed in the level of communication between city administration and the council,” he said. “To start, I think we need to go back and make sure everyone has a good understanding of the city’s finances.”
While mayor, Peterson was a stickler for council members studying up on issues prior to meetings, something he said has been lacking in the current rendition of the city’s governing board. He made council packets available Friday morning before a Tuesday evening council meeting and would place a reminder call if one hadn’t been retrieved.
“As mayor, you need to reach out,” he said. “I think there needs to be more preparation on the council’s part.”