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2009 State of the City Address

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March 18, 2009

Good afternoon.  I appreciate that you have taken the time to be here today.

I want to thank Chamber CEO Bill Taylor and his staff for organizing today’s event.
I’d like to begin by acknowledging members of our City Council  -

  • Council President Randy Corman,
  • Terri Briere,
  • King Parker,
  • Greg Taylor,
  • Don Persson
  • and Rich Zwicker.     Marcie Palmer was unable to join us today.

The City Council has provided a great deal of support to city staff this past year, and they continue to work very hard to protect the interests of our citizens.  I sincerely appreciate your ongoing support.

I also want to acknowledge former Councilmember Toni Nelson, who has joined us today.

Renton is fortunate to receive excellent support from our representatives in Olympia.  I want to especially recognize the efforts of Senator Margarita Prentice.  And this community is truly fortunate to have former school board member, Marcie Maxwell, as a local representative from our city.

And please join me in welcoming our two King County Council representatives:  Julia Patterson and Reagan Dunn.

As most of you know, Renton’s unique partnerships are envied around the region.  Together with the Renton Chamber of Commerce, the Renton School District, Renton Technical College and Valley Medical Center, we have forged ahead and accomplished what would not have been possible alone.

I would like our partners to stand and be recognized:  Dr. Mary Alice Heuschel, Superintendent of the Renton School District; Rich Roodman, CEO of Valley Medical Center; Dr. Don Bressler, President of Renton Technical College; and Renton Chamber of Commerce CEO Bill Taylor.

Thank you for being here today.

When I spoke in front of you last year, it looked like the Puget Sound region might dodge the calamity affecting the global economy, and the forecast for Renton at that time was positive.

Unfortunately, the local bubble burst a few months later and a lot has changed in a year's time.

We are in the midst of a global financial crisis that impacts us all. This crisis is leading to some very challenging times ahead.

Our region and our city are experiencing the most difficult economic period of our lifetimes.  Every day we are faced with more bad news:  financial markets in a tailspin, credit all dried up, company after company laying off employees, a collapsed housing market, closing of many retail stores, and increasing numbers of bankruptcies. 

The real measure of these tough times is the impact being felt by our citizens:  the pain of losing retirement investments, the helplessness of facing home foreclosure, the fruitless search for a job at a time when there are few to be had.  Unfortunately — as bad as it seems right now — there are indicators that we have not yet hit bottom.

Without question, the downturn in the U.S. and local economies is being felt by us all.

It appears that we’re in for a challenging period that may last several years.

Total Renton employment is expected to decline about 3 percent this year.  Housing permits have dropped from more than 1,300 units in 2007 to less than 450 units last year and are anticipated to continue to go down.

Pull-back in consumer and business spending in our region is expected to continue through this year, resulting in another cycle of falling taxable sales and sales tax collection for the city.

I want to take a few moments to explain how this affects city services.

City budgets are similar to a business or household budget, where you have to balance your income or revenue against expenses.  The city’s primary revenue sources are property and sales taxes.   And with the decline in the economy and real estate market, those revenues are shrinking.

Last October, the City Council approved our 2009 budget of $252 million, with $100 million of that total used to pay for police, fire, roads, parks and recreation, and other city services.  The remaining dollars are dedicated to transportation and other projects and cannot be used for operational overhead.

The base for this budget included significant cuts we had already made last summer to meet revenue shortfalls last year, including 35 unfilled positions.

Within the first couple weeks of this year, it became very apparent that revenues were dropping at a rate higher than we could have foreseen, requiring that we prepare for deficits that may reach 8% or more this year.

These continued declines will require significant cuts and will result in some reduced services to our residents.  We are working hard with all our employees and labor unions to explore options to see how we can bridge this gap with the least impact to our employees and the community we serve.  My goal has been to avoid lay-offs while also maintaining quality service to our citizens.

All of our departments have been impacted by cuts, including police and fire personnel.  We currently have 47 unfilled positions and are facing the potential of laying off 18 more.  Despite these reductions in staff, I’m committed to maintaining our ability to provide quality emergency services for our residents and businesses.

These times give us the opportunity to transform ourselves – an opportunity to put our city on a new path that will lead to enhanced fiscal accountability, greater efficiencies, and a culture of innovation.

Though we have to make tough decisions today to work through the current challenges, this is also an opportunity for us to review our long-term business model.  When we do rebound — ¬and we will rebound —  we must be more diligent than ever about using resources wisely, increasing efficiencies, and prioritizing the services we deliver with the limited dollars that taxpayers have entrusted us to manage.

Despite the negative economy, Renton’s population, housing stock, and retail spending still outpaced comparable measures for King County and the region last year.

New construction in the city has been between two and three times the regional average over the past three years. 

Employment growth for Renton between 2005 and 2008 outpaced that of King County by 4%.  We continued to see increased numbers of jobs in wholesale, retail, and business services, and a diversification of our economy and employment base. 

The growth in Renton’s total taxable retail sales was among the highest in the region, at over 3% in 2008 when most cities were seeing declines.
Renton’s assessed valuation has increased almost 100 percent over the last seven years, from $5.0 billion in 2001 to nearly $10 billion in 2008. 

Even with announced staff reductions, Boeing continues to be Renton’s largest employer.  The Renton-built 737 has a substantial backlog of nearly 2,200 airplanes, worth more than $140 billion at list prices.  Produced continuously in Renton since 1968, the Boeing 737 is by far the most successful jet in the history of commercial aviation.  Boeing’s Renton operations provide 20,000 jobs to our area.

I took office last year determined to strengthen our services, rebuild public trust in city government, and make a difference in people’s lives. 

Thanks to the leadership of the City Council, and the commitment of our city administrators and employees, who go the extra mile every day, we have accomplished a great deal.

We saw unprecedented growth in our city.  Last year, the population of our city grew by over 25 percent.  Renton is now home to over 80,000 residents.

Our city, which has doubled its population over the past 18 years, is one of the fastest growing cities among the largest cities in Washington. 

This continued growth is one of the most complex decisions facing our city, with the potential annexations of the West Hill and Fairwood areas. Taking in these two areas would make Renton larger than Bellevue.

Annexation is a choice that requires a vote of the residents in order for them to become part of our city.  While we welcome annexation areas that desire to be part of Renton, I’m not willing to take in either area without assurances that we can do so without negatively impacting the service levels in our city.  Providing these areas with the level of service we currently provide our citizens will require funding support from the county and the state for at least a period of time.

To help us with these future funding needs, we are actively pursuing with our legislators an extension and expansion of our allocation of state sales tax revenue.  We are also exploring a comprehensive pilot project for the West Hill to meet the challenges of the area and provide the tools for community revitalization.  This effort will require partnering with all levels of government, the school district, and the private sector.  We’ll be able to share some of these ideas within the next couple months.

We completed a library master plan and are working with the community to evaluate our future needs.  A significant investment is needed in order to meet the needs of our library customers, and we will be providing the community with the option to annex to the King County Library System.

Creating a better city requires that we engage our citizens in the planning process.  This year, in coordination with our highly successful Neighborhood Program, we are launching the Community Planning Initiative — a true partnership with our community to help plan the future of our city.  By empowering our citizens to define the future of where they live, learn, work, and play, we create a visionary, yet strategic and sustainable plan for future development.

Revitalization of the Highlands Community has been talked about for years and we have made great strides to finally take some action.  We worked with a citizen task force, made up of local residents and business and property owners, to develop a plan to revitalize the area.  Recommendations from the task force, which include major infrastructure improvements, creating a focal point and gathering area in the community, and improved neighborhood safety and crime reduction, was recently adopted by the City Council.  We have since provided the Council with a work plan and we will soon begin to implement some of these ideas.

One of my primary commitments has been to enhance overall safety throughout Renton while working to reduce criminal activity. We have made real progress in this area.

We launched a comprehensive plan to improve the sense of safety in the downtown, the transit center, and other parts of the city.  We increased police patrols at the transit center, and relocated two of our police divisions to the municipal garage.  And we successfully coordinated with King County Metro for regular maintenance and cleaning at the transit center.

We launched the photo enforcement program with a goal to stop red-light violators and discourage speeding in our school zones.  We have issued over 18,500 citations.  (Here is an “honesty test.”  How many in this room have received a greeting card from the city from one of our cameras?)  You might be surprised to learn that the majority of those cited were commuters who are not Renton residents, but use our roads as a freeway bypass.  We are considering an expansion of this program to other parts of our city.

Working collaboratively, the Police Department, Code Enforcement staff, and the City Attorney’s Office have made progress in cleaning up our neighborhoods.  Our staff has resolved over 3,000 cases involving code violations, with the majority resolved voluntarily.

And after many years of neighborhood complaints, we successfully collaborated with the Bryant family to demolish the boarded-up Don-a-Lisa motel, and we’re working with the Bryants on future redevelopment of the site.

Renton took the lead and finally got rid of two very large, contaminated drydocks that were towed down from Lake Union and abandoned on our shores at Lake Washington.  Thanks to the tenacity of Suzanne Dale Estey, our  Economic Development Director, we were able to finally cut through the bureaucratic red tape and work with the state to remove the drydocks.

We’re looking for long-term solutions to ongoing crime problems.  As an example, we took an innovative approach to crack down on the problem of massage parlors and tanning salons that were continually involved in illegal activities.  Following the most recent arrests made by our police officers, our City Attorney’s office contacted the property owners and the lien holders of the buildings that housed these businesses to alert them.  As a result, many of these owners, who were unaware of what was going on in their properties, are taking appropriate action.

Graffiti is a huge problem for every city and we just launched one of the most aggressive anti-graffiti initiatives in the region.  Armed with a new ordinance and surveillance cameras that give us the ability to prosecute offenders and also seek restitution, we now have a program to aggressively address graffiti and vandalism in our city.  Thanks to the help of some of our local stores — McLendons, Wal-Mart, and Target — we are able to provide free graffiti removal kits to those victimized by vandals, and we will soon have volunteers available to assist seniors and others in cleaning their properties.

To truly make a community safe requires that we all do our part.  We just launched “Renton’s Most Wanted,” an effort to provide our citizens with information on wanted criminals through our website and our local newspaper.  Two wanted felons have already been apprehended thanks to tips to the police.

Emergency preparedness is one of our high priorities.  We completed our emergency management plans and established the Renton Emergency Preparedness Academy, in partnership with Renton Technical College.

We also established “disaster assignments” for all city employees, to increase the city resources available to help out in the event of a disaster.

February was Renton Heart Month again this year, which helps inform citizens about heart attack risks and how to respond to early warning signs.  For the first time, we partnered with the American Red Cross to host “CPR Saturday” in Renton.  We broke all records with over 500 people receiving the training.

One of the most popular tools to save the lives of heart attack victims is the automatic external defibrillator, commonly referred to as the AED.  We have installed AED’s in most of our city facilities and will be working to increase their availability throughout the city.  Our staff saved the life of a heart attack victim at our senior center and an employee successfully used this device to save a victim at McLendon’s.

Mother Nature tested us last year and our staff met the challenge.  We responded to one storm after another this winter and kept our community safe.  Our snow plows and sanding trucks cleared 13,000 miles of local roads this winter.  As you might recall, Mayor Nickels in Seattle was tarred and feathered for giving his staff a B in their response to dealing with the snow and ice.  I have no reservations in giving our employees an A+.

This year we may have to test our disaster preparedness.  After the heavy rains we experienced earlier this year, the Howard Hanson Dam, which keeps the Green River and areas in the Valley from flooding, was seriously compromised by erosion along one of the banks of the reservoir.

Some of you who have lived all your lives in this area probably remember when the entire valley, from Auburn to Renton, was flooded nearly all winter. The Howard Hanson Dam provided the opportunity to convert thousands of acres of farm lands into offices, warehouses, manufacturing companies, and retail stores.

The dam is managed by the U.S. Army Corps. of Engineers and they have been forced to lower the storage capacity of the dam until repairs are made, which means that if we experience a major rain storm, they will not be able to hold back as much water.  This could result in severe flooding in several south county cities, including Renton, endangering many homes and businesses located on the Valley floor.

While the Corps. of Engineers feels that the dam poses no immediate risk, the problem could take years to fix and we are working hard with our community and the other cities affected to be better prepared in the event we experience our second 100 year flood this year.

Attracting new employers and development to our city has been a priority for many years.  It’s more important now than ever. 

On that front, I do have some positive news to share.  Plans are in the works to add a new hotel to our community at the Pan Abode site located across from the new Seahawks facility.  And Waterways Cruises are working on a plan to launch regular cruises on Lake Washington from the Cedar River Boathouse.

And last year 12th Man flags were flying high all over the city to welcome the Seattle Seahawks to their new home in Kennydale.  This year we expect an even greater celebration as the Seahawks hold their first full training camp in Renton.

Besides opening the new Seahawks facility last year, we did enjoy several other ribbon-cuttings  —  including the Federal Reserve Bank, and the cinemas and several other new stores at The Landing.

Every month we have new stores and restaurants opening at The Landing, and the first round of residents are beginning to move into Fairfield’s Sanctuary apartments. The Landing is fulfilling its destiny as a great urban center.

Redevelopment of our downtown continues to part of our work plan.  A number of new restaurants and retail stores have opened this past year, and there are more events happening downtown than ever before, thanks to our partnerships with Piazza Renton and downtown businesses.

Cedar River Corporate Park, the first LEED-certified “green” office development in Renton, is now 50% leased with several new high-tech companies.  And Providence Health Systems, with 1,300 employees, moved into Valley Office Park.

Another exciting project in Renton is Valley Medical Center’s $200M expansion of their new emergency services building that will open later this year.  This new surgical wing and ER facility will allow Valley to handle the continued growth in patient care while maintaining its well-deserved reputation as one of the finest medical facilities in this state.

For those of you entering your mid-life crisis, you’ll be excited to learn that Harley Davidson is moving here from Tukwila and will soon be opening the largest showroom in the state. 

Other great additions to our business community include Columbia Bank, which is building its first Renton branch next to Wal-Mart, and Seattle Cancer Treatment and Wellness Center, which recently moved here from Seattle.

To deal with struggling businesses, we have been lobbying the legislature to assist us with sustained funding for the Small Business Development Center that provides confidential no-cost advisory services to local small businesses and new entrepreneurs.  This has proven to be an invaluable service.  We have been able to continue this program thanks to Renton Technical College, Renton Chamber, First Savings Bank Northwest and US Bank joining the city to provide necessary funding.

Back to Lake Washington, we are planning for the future development of Quendall Terminals, next to the Seahawks facility, which has a few contamination issues.  Actually it’s now a federal Superfund site under EPA control, and there are indications that a clean-up plan may allow for development of this 20-acre waterfront site by 2012.

No industry has been hit harder than the automotive industry, and this has significantly strained the city’s budget as new car sales have plunged this past year.  We’re fortunate to have some of the best auto dealers in the state, and strong sales in used cars and service have been encouraging.

We are continuing to do our part to help ensure that The Boeing Company remains strong in our community.  We are currently negotiating a new 25-year lease at the Renton Municipal Airport.  And we are working closely with a statewide coalition to ensure that our region continues to be the best place in the world for Boeing to build its commercial and military airplanes.

The value of having a first-class employer like The Boeing Company becomes more obvious when you have a struggling economy like we’re currently experiencing.  Renton and Boeing have shared a rich history for over 65 years.  Shaunta Hyde is here today representing The Boeing Company.  We appreciate Boeing’s continued investment in Renton.

We made significant progress on transportation projects and have several major improvements underway for our roads and other infrastructure that provide the basic foundation for our city.

The Duvall Avenue construction project is going well and, once completed, will provide additional lanes, sidewalks and underground power lines.  We expect to complete this project this summer, on time and on budget.

We completed improvements to the SR 169/I-405 Interchange, and finished constructing the bike path along Logan Avenue, which is part of the Lake Washington Trail.

We are working on the Jones Avenue sidewalk project to enhance the safety of students going to and from school, and have completed work on the traffic signal at the intersection of Sunset Avenue and Hoquiam Avenue that serves Hazen High School.

This year, we will finish installing school zone flashers at all our local schools and will continue to partner with the Renton School District to complete school walking routes for elementary schools.

Another milestone this year will be our work on Rainier Avenue.  This project will bring several improvements to this major corridor in Renton — from adding more lanes and safety features to streetscape improvements that will enhance both bus and automobile traffic and make this a more attractive corridor.  We are receiving $2 million of stimulus funding for this project.

We continue to work with Sound Transit, the Washington State Department of Transportation, and our other regional partners to improve transit options in our community.

Today, environmental responsibility is a business issue.

We instituted one of the most comprehensive recycling efforts in our region with our new garbage collection services.  While this was not without some challenges and public anxiety, the service is proving to be a big success.  We negotiated one of the lowest rates in the region.  Last month, the amount of waste our residents sent to the landfill decreased by 15%, and the amount of food and yard waste set at the curb for composting increased by almost 75%.

At City Hall, we have emphasized paper waste reduction in all city operations, and we purchased a hybrid boom truck to save on fuel costs.

Together with the Washington State Department of Transportation, we have developed the 130-acre Springbrook Creek Wetland Mitigation Bank, creating the first and largest urban wetland mitigation bank in the state.

Renton is well known for its wonderful parks, open spaces, numerous recreational opportunities and diverse cultural heritage.

We are continuing to revitalize our neighborhoods, libraries, and museum. We have enhanced our recreation and community programs, and have made several improvements to our parks, trails, and open spaces.  We participated in the One Night Count for the homeless last month and continue to work closely with those in our community who are in need.

As the economy gets tight, more people stay close to home.  We had record attendance at our events this past year — including the 4th of July celebration, the Farmers Market, IKEA Renton River Days, and the Holiday Lights at Coulon Park and Piazza Park.

I want to take a moment here to acknowledge the outstanding support of IKEA to this community.  For years, IKEA has played a very important role in our community and has made ongoing contributions to local schools, civic causes, and celebrations, including sponsoring Renton River Days.

Our Neighborhood Program continues to be tremendously popular with our citizens.  Nearly 4,000 people enjoyed our neighborhood picnics last summer and we welcomed eleven new neighborhoods, boosting the total to 52 neighborhood associations.

Some other activities this past year included partnering with Renton Technical College in the CommUNITY Festival to celebrate the richness and diversity in our community and sponsored a very successful teen summit in collaboration with the Renton School District.

We made a number of improvements to our local parks, and are working on the development of an Off-Leash Dog Park, jointly funded and operated by the city and local citizens.

We finalized the Audubon Sanctuary Certification at Maplewood Golf Course and we expect to be recognized as a “Tree City USA” this year.  We also started our Museum Master Plan and received the Gates Foundation grant for Highlands Library technology needs.

Renton continues to be blessed with volunteers who make a big difference in our community.  We doubled our number of volunteers last year and, in the Community Services Department alone, we had over 28,000 volunteer hours.

To improve efficiency and customer service to our citizens, we made some organizational changes at City Hall.

We converted the City Attorney’s Office from an outside contract to in-house staff.

And we merged two departments to create the Department of Community and Economic Development, integrating development services — from business recruitment to planning, to construction inspection — while making sure that we continue to focus on enhancing our neighborhoods.

We’ve developed and implemented several online systems to improve customer services and increase options for how residents access city services.  From online building permits to online registration of recreation services and a greatly enhanced website — we have made government more accessible.  Soon you will be able to renew your business or animal license online, have online access to public records, and even make your court payments.

Building a jail is not as much fun as unveiling a pool.  But we have a responsibility to provide these services.  We have joined six other south county cities to form a partnership to build a new misdemeanant jail to meet the region’s needs.  Working with our neighboring cities allows us to meet the public safety needs of our community for many years to come at a lower overall cost to our taxpayers.

We continue to improve our outreach and communications with the public and will be rolling out several efforts this year, including improvements to our website, expanded programs on our cable channel, and a comprehensive plan to communicate with our non-English speaking community.

We know what's bad about this current economic situation.  But what's good about this is that we can learn something about ourselves in how we respond to it.  Tough times reveal true character.  During tough times, we find many people stepping up to help those with greater needs.

Like the many local nonprofits, foundations, businesses, and residents who have stepped up to help fill the needs created during these tough times. Earlier this year the Renton Community Foundation donated $41,000 in grants to a number of local charitable organizations.  This money was raised from local residents, business owners, and community leaders to help meet some of the growing needs in our community.  Thanks to the continued generosity of First Savings Bank Northwest, we are able to help residents stay in their homes through our Housing Repair Assistance Program.

Despite the economic challenges, there is some positive news to report:

The Target store at The Landing has been in the top five of 1,680 Target stores in the nation for same-store sales compared to last year. 

And LA Fitness has 15,000 members and is the most successful LA Fitness on the West Coast.

Contrary to the challenges auto dealers are facing, some things are going well.  For example, Bob Bridge reports that their “Parts and Service” business and used car sales are up by 10%.  And Bob is confident that when this slowdown passes, the pent-up demand will mean all-time record sales and profits.

Even in these uncertain times, the state of our city is strong. I say this not because I am expected to, but frankly, there is no other community I’m aware of that works together like Renton to meet challenges and opportunities.

We are the result of generations of responsible growth, cooperation, innovation, and shared sacrifice.  We are an open community that values diversity and nurtures innovative ideas.  We will get through this crisis, and we will come out of it a better city.

Throughout this community, many people, institutions, and organizations are stepping up in this time of crisis.  This is who we are, and this is why I love this city.  Hope and aspiration will lift us to our fullest potential.

At a speech last week, Governor Gregoire said that we can’t afford to just ride out this economic crisis and wait for things to turn around.  We must successfully navigate through it, so that we find ourselves in an even stronger position when we exit this recession.

The hard times will end and the economy will turn around. 

Now is the time for us to put our city on a new path that will lead to fiscal accountability, greater efficiencies, and a culture of innovation.  Now is the time to stand up for our city, because this is a city worth fighting for.

We are in a new era of resolve and responsibility.  We will make tough choices today, but attain greater prosperity tomorrow.  We will come through this a stronger city.

Thank you.

Denis Law, Mayor