Thank you once again for the opportunity to speak with you on the state of our city, the city of Spokane Valley. As we enter another year into our second decade, I am happy to report the state of the city of Spokane Valley is very good; continuing to build upon its growing prosperity despite the economic challenges our country has experienced these past few years.
This growth is based upon an adherence to certain core beliefs that underlie our progress and direction. These principles haven’t changed, nor are they unfamiliar to each of us in our daily lives. They are: spend carefully, budget wisely, focus on needs not wants, think long term, and prioritize, prioritize and prioritize some more.
As a contract city, we negotiate with government and the private sector, scrutinize and weigh costs and work in the interest of our citizens for the best value and benefit. Our city is lean and efficient with just 87 employees to serve almost a hundred thousand people. Our goal is to be business friendly, but seek balance with our quality of life.
For economic development, we employ business ideas within a municipal framework to help spur development for jobs and the families they attract as well as lightening our tax burdens – which, by the way, we have not raised for the last six years, saving our citizens nearly $1 million.
All in all, we try to work thoughtfully and carefully, put regulatory and physical infrastructure in place, and then, as they say, “get out of the way!”
There are many reasons why the state of our city is good, but I will try to give you some of the highlights and key components.
To me, it all starts with the hardworking and remarkable people who live, work and invest in the city of Spokane Valley to make it so special. And today, I can add some of these highlights that have helped make 2014 a success.
We have a great legislative branch in our City Council that works alongside what I feel is a city government second to none. Under the direction of City Manager Mike Jackson, Deputy City Manager Mark Calhoun, our directors and city staff, a successful partnership has emerged to move this city forward that is the envy of other municipalities. We get more than a few inquiries asking how we do it.
Our city government is “on board” with new ideas to cut costs, streamline government and quite literally bring multi-tasking to a new level. One quick example of the many employees who go above and beyond in their service is our human resources director, who in addition to his multiple and diverse areas of responsibility, created a mobile app supporting the city of Spokane Valley’s economic development efforts in 2014. He, along with student interns, personally visited 555 Spokane Valley businesses and helped 364 of them upload their business to the mobile app at no charge to them. Just one of many examples of lean government mirroring lean business!
Another key component in our well-being is the emphasis on public safety. In fact, it is our number one council priority and the largest expenditure in our general fund at a little over $24 million and is twice the amount of property taxes paid annually by Valley residents. The city of Spokane Valley contracts with the Spokane County Sheriff’s Office for Valley policing and we are fortunate to have the outstanding leadership of Chief Rick Van Leuven at the helm.
Valley police are tasked to crime prevention, tracking down and arresting criminals, recovering stolen property and reducing burglaries and vehicle thefts. Our city is spread over a large geographic area, ranging from rural/suburban to urban/industrial with many of the challenges of larger population centers.
With council approval in 2014, Chief Van Leuven added two new officers to employ an innovative power shift patrol strategy to maximize policing presence in a 24 hour period. Valley police also actively participate with federal and state agencies in tracking and reducing the gang presence and activity in our area. School resource deputies continue their long-standing safety work in our schools.
Many of the new challenges for the department in 2014 were related to the legalization of marijuana in our state. Valley police responded to 60 incidents involving drivers under the influence of marijuana, an increase of more than 50 percent over 2013. They also dealt with explosions and fires at valley residences from homeowners using volatile substances while processing marijuana derivatives such as honey oil. Our city is working to craft the needed regulations to help keep marijuana in its multiple forms out of the hands of our children within this uncertain and ever changing environment.
I also must note that the hard work of our Valley police is equally matched by the dedication of our many SCOPE volunteers, the eyes and ears of our community. The Valley SCOPE organization provided over 1,733 volunteer hours at our four Valley locations in February alone, translating into a savings of over $37,000. We are indeed indebted to these wonderful volunteers who contribute to our safety.
The public works department is another key component of our success. This large department is basic to the development of our physical infrastructure and foundations including our great roads for public safety and economic growth. In 2014, public works managed 17 construction projects and 12 design projects. They also completed the paving on Sprague Avenue, essential to the rejuvenation and commerce of this valuable commercial business route.
We have begun construction of the much needed and long awaited West Sullivan Bridge. Careful planning in conjunction with state and local agencies involving funding and ultimate completion will leave the city with not only a vital and safe economic lifeline, but also a river viewing area and an expanded park at Sullivan Road for the enjoyment of our citizens. Later this year, the city will have a link on its Web site so the public can view time-lapse videos of work as it progresses.
When completed in 2016, the new West Sullivan Bridge, at a cost of $15 million will have four lanes to accommodate increased traffic and business activity between an expanding Industrial Park, Interstate 90 and the Bigelow Gulch Road bypass. This vital infrastructure project, with the help of state and federal agencies, combined with existing city funds will result in zero debt or tax increases to our citizens.
So in terms of moving forward, we have talked about our commitments to public safety and our physical infrastructure. Another key component of our city success is found in our community and economic development department with the formulation of our regulatory infrastructure which goes hand in hand with our physical infrastructure.
One of the most visible and important parts of this department is the permitting department. If you can’t get past the front desk and you can’t build your house, your business, or entice companies to come with jobs and opportunity, you’re on a path to nowhere -- just a layer of government, mired in regulation and falling behind. In this competitive world, opportunity flows to the path of least resistance, quite likely right across the city limits.
The city of Spokane Valley strongly promotes its permitting with results to back up our claims. We have an “over the counter” permit facilitator for most residential and two-family remodels and sign permits. We have streamlined permitting applications and payment online. In this first full year, 33 percent of all permits were issued online. We’ll be adding additional online permitting while continuously working for consistency by outreach and review.
Our turn-around time also reflects our commitment to the individuals and businesses we serve. In 2014, we issued 3,961 building permits. We achieved 10 business days or less for first review of commercial permits and new residential permits within five days, and 79 percent of all construction permits in Spokane Valley are issued in less than three days.
However, what really makes the last five years of hard work so meaningful is that 99 percent of permit customers give the city of Spokane Valley a positive rating as it pertains to satisfaction with services regarding land use, planning and zoning.
But the permit department doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It takes innovative, practical and common-sense oriented direction from the top and through a planning department attuned to our community and business -- another reflection of the commitment of this department to our motto of making this a “community of opportunity.”
Some important examples of this progress include the processing of over 12,500 development inspections by the building department in 2014 with permit valuations exceeding $111 million. As mayor, along with City Manager Mike Jackson, we signed a record 1,899 letters welcoming new businesses to Spokane Valley. The new business registrations exceed the 2013 total of 1622 by 17 percent.
Some of the new businesses and/or new facilities include: The completion of the huge Fortune 500 Car Max facility within our thriving Auto Row; a new Europro Automotive; a My Place Hotel; a Grocery Outlet; Seattle Reproductive Medicine; United Health Services Credit Union; Numerica Credit Union; and PEMCO Insurance, just to name a few.
Our industrial park, vitally important in our city’s commerce and industry continues to add new tenants with over 150 companies occupying their space. We have developed targeted marketing campaigns through various media to lure business relocations, and we participate with Greater Spokane Inc. and the Spokane Valley Chamber of Commerce.
This year, 2015, we are seeing further positive results as our financial goals come together with projected sales tax revenues in 2015 exceeding 2014 by $852,000 or more, a projected increase of 6 percent. In 2014 sales tax revenues exceeded those of 2007 the highest sales tax collection year since the incorporation of the city of Spokane Valley in 2003.
Again, this economic success did not just “happen.” With council and city manager direction, and the financial expertise of our finance director who is now our deputy city manager, the city has been able to maintain cash flows, identify available working capital for basic services, fund capital projects ranging from the West Sullivan Bridge to the Appleway Trail and provide for a new City Hall, all while maintaining a fixed percentage of healthy reserves.
This expertise allows the city with an adopted 2015 budget of over $65 million to plan effectively year after year not only to provide basic service levels to our citizens, but also to manage city goals and needs, all while living within our means. The validity of this approach to lean and effective local government has served our community well. Last year, our city earned a bond rating of Aa3 from Moody’s Financial Service which will make it possible for our city to benefit from lower financing costs on capital projects like a new City Hall.
Going forward, our city planners, as part of the community and economic development department are working on the 10-year update of our Comprehensive Plan. They have now finished the Shoreline Master Plan in innovative fashion, successfully maintaining private property rights at the forefront while complying with State and Federal mandated regulations. Also, as part of the Comprehensive Plan update, the city has been holding a series of community visioning meetings to gather citizen perspectives.
The public has identified several areas of importance including infrastructure such as parks and roads, business and economic opportunities and the need for appropriate public amenities and facilities, all to promote quality of life issues. Housing needs were of concern, and like many communities, there are competing challenges as the City grows and becomes more urbanized. Overall, what is the most gratifying is that the direction of City Council and city government generally appears to be “in sync” with citizen input.
Another area highlighted by our citizens was the desire to have more of a city identity. Some of this comes with time, and some of this comes with future goals. City gateways, like Thierman Road can help create visual identity. We also must find a workable, common-sense historic preservation method which values our past before it disappears.
Our city also supports our annual Valleyfest community celebration in September, and its related activities throughout the year, synonymous with our family-friendly character. We have a strong Parks Department to enhance community livability. Our CenterPlace Regional Event Center is an important community gathering place for all types of activities, especially our seniors. And the Spokane Valley Arts Council has just donated a beautiful third sculpture at CenterPlace for all to enjoy.
New sand volleyball courts are being added to Browns Park for community use and competition. The city is planning an expansion of Balfour Park in the University City area, and hopefully with voter approval, alongside a new Valley Library. We are also developing a new Trail system called The Appleway Trail which will link University City to Liberty Lake. This new type of linear park, even as construction continues, is already filled with people out for a stroll. What is remarkable is that this park/trail is being paid for mostly by outside funds and grants. It is part of a 30-year interlocal agreement between the city of Spokane Valley and Spokane County. Its community identity and use-value is growing each day, along with the often-cited importance of the Centennial Trail.
We are also becoming known as a walkable, bike-riding community, not only for our well-being, but for attracting young families and promoting our quality of life. We now have more than 41 miles of bike lanes and will be completing the designation of our biking roadways.
This past year, our city began the process of planning for a new city hall with the purchase of approximately 3.5 acres at University City. This civic center will be “right-sized” in keeping with the desire for an efficient and lean government philosophy. With a lease at our current location due for renewal, our future costs were uncertain. We are now experiencing some of the lowest interest rates and building expenses not seen in recent memory. We are able, because of our excellent bond rating, to borrow money at very favorable rates, essentially exchanging rent for mortgage.
We are locating in an area that is repurposing and renewing itself all within the free enterprise, market economy. We have a property owner willing to demolish vacant and obsolete buildings at their expense, without taxpayer dollars and government mandate. And with a favorable mix of infrastructure in place, market forces are already working to make this city hall part of an active civic center with a vibrant and diverse mix of business, educational, recreational and government entities.
This is that “laying the groundwork” that I spoke of before and the recognition that the market will take over instead of a multi-million dollar, heavy-handed sub-area plan. This project should be completed in 2017, almost 15 years from the inception of this city, after weathering a difficult recession and tending to the city’s many other needs first. Thus, the conditions and the time are right to now solidify our permanent identity.
Our city took another step this year on how it handles solid waste. After seven years of studies and negotiations with other regional partners, we felt it was in the best interest of our citizens to sign a long term contract for solid waste disposal with Sunshine Disposal and Recycling. As part of this partnership, Sunshine has expanded their transfer station to have the capacity to provide the necessary service for the over 40,000 tons per year of garbage generated by our residents. Sunshine is providing a favorable rate and options which in turn will result in savings of thousands of dollars for taxpayers over the next ten years. This action reflects who we are as a city—a contract city tasked to lower costs and work in the best interest of our citizens. Spokane County will continue to operate their separate transfer station also located in our city.
This then is the brief overview of the state of our city. Our progress has been amazing! However, there are challenges that have existed and challenges that are looming. Some, we can do something about and some are somewhat beyond our control--- but all require thought and planning.
At the forefront is the issue of the oil and coal trains moving through our city which could swell to 116 trains per day over the 17 today. This economic choke point may become a hard reality over the next several years, let alone a huge safety issue. We are also dealing with shrinking federal and state funds which supply 70 to 80 percent of the funding needed for the multi-million projects to “bridge” the Valley. The Barker overpass is projected to cost approximately $19 million and the Pines underpass about 15 million.
Public safety costs are projected to increase by millions within the next ten years. We will be increasingly challenged in the acquisition, development and maintenance of our important park system which attracts growth. And we must not postpone and divert funds from our roads and infrastructure, even as outside funding decreases.
We need a framework for a diverse mix of housing types for all ages. Affordable housing solutions attract young people and their families along with new companies.
We must work with and ask of our legislators to secure a greater share of available funding. With 80 percent of the population on the west side of our state, we must find ways to overcome this imbalance especially as the state shifts more and more responsibilities onto the cities and removes promised funds.
We need to look more closely at improving the infrastructure, physical and regulatory, of our city north of the freeway, giving relief to citizens who bear the brunt of incessant trains negatively affecting their quality of life. We have huge residential, commercial and industrial opportunities in the Trent area which can bring about that market driven revitalization and resulting increased revenues. And we must rededicate ourselves to bridging the necessary streets to bring economic opportunity to all sections.
Lastly, as a cautionary note, we do have new and future challenges. However, the answers must always be through enhancing our revenues with growth first through the private sector.
Most of all, it is important for our city to continue moving forward. You can’t stop vital needs, maintenance and improvements just because you are saving for one large project. We are building the West Sullivan Bridge with an accumulation of funding sources and we never once stopped growing our infrastructure. We just worked harder for funding.
And though the many issues listed above may be challenging, they should not be paralyzing. These projects should be tackled with thought and creativity even with small steps, for if they are never started, they will never be finished!
Thank you everyone for this moment to share all that is good about this city, how it has changed and what it is becoming. And thank you to all of our City Council and our many city employees, from the front desk to the city manager. You are amazing in your service and I appreciate all you do, every day.
And most of all, I’d like to thank the citizens whom we serve first and who ultimately have allowed me to serve. It has truly been an honor.
Dean Grafos, Mayor
May 6, 2015