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2015 State of the City Address

March 4, 2015

Seven years ago this month, with only 2 ½ months on the job, I presented my first State of the City address to this group.

We had not yet been hit by the impact of the Great Recession and things leading up to this point had been very positive in Renton. The city’s population had grown that month by 25% with the annexation of the Cascade/Benson communities. The Federal Reserve Bank opened its regional facility in Renton and we were about to cut the ribbon on the new waterfront home of the Seattle Seahawks.

But it didn’t take long before the full impact of the recession arrived, thrusting all of us into a survival mode that lasted a number of years.

I like to reflect back to March of 2008 because the positive news of that day was a sign of the “new Renton.” A commitment by community leaders to change the reputation of this city years back was finally paying off. We had built a strong foundation that continues to serve us today.

I’ll start by telling you that the State of the City today is strong.

And I believe we owe a good deal of thanks for where we are today to community leaders who came together with city officials 20 years ago with a desire to change the direction of this city.

I want to share a bit of this history with those of you who are new to Renton.

Back in the early 90s, Renton was not a place where people wanted to move or open a business. Frankly, we had the unfortunate distinction of being one of the worst cities in the region to develop anything.

Understanding that change was necessary, Mayor Earl Clymer and his staff met with a determined and very vocal group of leaders and listened to a barrage of reasons why Renton was an undesirable place to build.

He received a verbal beating but hung in there. And instead of trying to defend city processes that were clearly unfriendly to the development community, Mayor Clymer pulled everyone together and the rest is history. A transformation began at City Hall that, over a period a years, moved Renton to become a model city in this state for our customer service and permitting process. This, along with implementing an effective economic development strategy, resulted with an explosion in new development in our community.

This commitment to improving our community continues today.

During my annual staff retreat with department heads in January, we spent time reviewing some of our accomplishments over the past seven years that we achieved despite the worst recession most of us have ever experienced.

It was a pretty impressive list and I want to share a few items with you today. First, as I have done in past years, I would like to provide you with some insight on what it is we do as a city.

Few people are really aware of the depth of services provided by the city. Our employees have a huge responsibility of providing a variety of vital services every day that citizens have come to expect from their local government. This is everything from public safety to services that impact the overall quality of life in our community.

The city is actually comprised of approximately 90 separate businesses, each with very different goals and objectives. With a workforce of 686 people, we provide services to nearly 100,000 people spread throughout a 24 square-mile community.

Our Public Works staff maintains about 675 miles of roads. Our water utility division pumps, purifies and delivers nearly 2 1/2 billion gallons of water to our citizens and businesses each year. And we service 223 miles of sewer lines, to make sure that all of the water we deliver to you, along with some additional waste, goes away on command.

We have highly-trained fire fighters responsible to put out fires, conduct rescues and extrications and handle more than 10,500 calls for medical assistance each year. They also provide fire prevention and emergency preparedness services.

It’s our dedicated police officers who are called upon to mediate family fights and arrest those committing crimes. They risk their personal safety every day to serve our citizens, and as the population of the region grows, so do the calls for police intervention.

We also have a hardworking group of employees who maintain over 1,200 acres of park land, open space and trails. We provide recreation programs that are utilized by thousands of people throughout the year. We also offer specialized services for senior citizens and local youth, as well as programs to assist our vulnerable population.

One business we offer is golf. We operate one of the most successful municipal golf courses in the region, where 55,000 rounds were played last year. In addition, our employees oversee many public events throughout the year, from Renton River Days and the Farmers Market, to the 4th of July celebration and Neighborhood Picnics.

Our popular aquatic center serves more than 70,000 people each summer.

We license over 4,000 businesses annually and review hundreds of plans submitted by contractors and developers. This is for new residential and commercial construction as well as remodeling or expansion projects.

We have trained mechanics responsible for repairing and maintaining a fleet of 530 vehicles, from police cars and fire engines to dump trucks, plus another 300 pieces of equipment from loaders to backhoes. And our code enforcement officers respond –to—and resolve—over 800 complaints during the year.

On top of all this, we also operate an airport where more than 100,000 annual flights take place. Besides general aviation aircraft, this includes the maiden flight for every new 737 airplane built in Renton, which now exceeds 500 per year.

That’s just a small sample of the lines of business we manage. Our workforce is comprised of accountants, secretaries, truck drivers, fire fighters, police officers, attorneys, landscape workers, road maintenance crews, planners, inspectors, civil and electrical engineers, facility experts, mechanics, communication experts, IT professionals, custodial crews, record clerks, emergency management experts and more.

As you can see, we are a busy organization with lots going on!

Over the past seven years, we have focused attention on improving our efficiency and customer service, while also meeting the new challenges of a growing, aging and very diverse population.

This past year, we continued to focus internally on improving our management and leadership skills. We introduced more training and set a new direction for our workforce, to nurture an improved culture of customer service.

We have achieved many of our goals, and I feel that this, along with ongoing feedback we receive from local citizens and business owners, is a testament to our level of success.

I mentioned last year that with the support of the city council, we set a goal to be the Best City in King County. To help us achieve this goal, we established four areas of priority for special focus.

They include…………

  • Continuing our focus on economic development opportunities
  • Improving service to our vulnerable and diverse populations
  • Enhancing customer service and the productivity of our employees
  • And Developing a sustainable fiscal strategy

We have made great progress in each of these areas.

Addressing our diverse and vulnerable populations is one of our top priorities.

Instead of just citing statistics, we provided some solutions to address the needs of our vulnerable populations, such as the Center of Hope at City Hall, feeding programs, cold weather shelter and other initiatives addressing our vulnerable seniors and homeless population.

To improve service for all of our residents, we knew it was important that our employees have a better knowledge about race, different cultures and unintentional biases.

  • We provided training for all of our employees on race, equity and inclusion.
  • We have strengthened our relationship with our community liaisons, and we are developing an equity lens that will help us evaluate several internal systems such as job recruitment and purchasing, with the incorporation of inclusion as one of the guidelines.
  • We are learning more about the needs of our aging population so that we can be in a better position to offer programs and services that meet their needs.
  • We are working closely with local churches to address the needs of our homeless and vulnerable populations.
  • And we are focusing a lot of effort on improving communication and relationships between our police officers and members of our diverse communities.

Pastors George Houston and Jess Champers with Living Hope Christian Fellowship came to my office in late December to discuss these issues and to help develop a plan on how we begin to build these relationships.

This was followed by a special Martin Luther King event at their church, which was attended by members of my staff including Police Chief Kevin Milosevich.

Pastor Houston wrote the Renton Reporter and offered some of his thoughts on a series of articles they had published titled, “Could Ferguson Happen Here.”

He commented that, “Frank and honest discussion in a public arena is necessary if we are to avoid misunderstandings that lead to mistrust and worse.”

He went on to say that “We are fortunate to have a police force that adheres to high standards of conduct. Situations like Ferguson don’t just happen overnight. They are the result of years of rage, simmering beneath the surface.”

Pastor Houston also noted that these conversations and the Martin Luther King Event were only the beginning, and that the issues are not only black and white. He encouraged ongoing forums that include members from Hispanic, Asian and other ethnic groups, to make all people know that they are welcomed in Renton and will be treated with dignity and respect.

We are fortunate to have Pastor Houston and other church leaders who are committed to work with us to break down these barriers and achieve our goal of truly becoming an inclusive community.

Moving on to the area of enhancing productivity and customer service, I’m proud to tell you that we have literally changed the workforce culture at City Hall.

We have created an environment that accepts change, and embraces creativity and performance improvement, with a management team that provides vision, leadership, training and motivation.

Over the past couple of years, we have created a culture committed to solving issues for our citizens rather than passing the buck. Multiple departments work together to identify solutions to problems and challenges, dramatically increasing our percentage of success. Our employees, from police officers to our storm water workers, continue to find ways to meet the needs of our citizens, while often going that extra mile to provide special service.

The reason for the success we’re experiencing is because the culture for quality service begins at the top. As I said last year, we are blessed to have a very talented and committed group of department administrators who truly lead by example.

I want to share a couple of examples of employees going that extra mile for our community.

Going back 20 years ago, a big part of Renton’s poor reputation surrounded our inability, or possibly unwillingness, to process permit requests in a timely manner. We were known to have an uncooperative and inflexible attitude when it came to inspections.

This is not how you encourage new development and investment in your community.

I want to share several stories that reflect the types of comments we now receive on a routine basis:

  • Renton Honda completed a new facility on East Valley Road and this was a very large and expensive development. They had a very critical timeframe to meet and were very pleased by the service our inspectors provided during the process. The general manager of the construction company wrote:

Inspectors Craig Burnell and Phil Hudgens went above and beyond for us by performing outstanding customer service during our recent construction of the Renton Honda facility. Both of them were always available when needed, listened to our concerns and tried their hardest to take care of our needs as they came up. We look forward to working with them again on our next project.

  • Bob Sowards works for our Community Services Department and has earned a reputation throughout City Hall as a great team player, who always goes the extra mile to help others. On February 17, Bob witnessed an incident and opted to get involved, which may have saved the life of a barista who was being attacked in the early morning hours after opening her establishment.

While driving by, Bob noticed what appeared to be a struggle between a man and woman. Rather than minding his own business and continuing on, he decided to go back to investigate and interrupted a sexual assault where the man was strangling the victim. The suspect stopped his attack and drove off as Bob was notifying police.

The detective assigned to this case praised Bob for taking the initiative to get involved. She said Bob was able to provide officers with a good description of the suspect and the license number of his truck, while attending to the victim until help arrived. She is convinced that the victim could have been killed if not for Bob’s willingness to get involved.

  • Most of the news we see about police officers these days seems to be negative. Little coverage is provided for the great work thousands of officers provide each day, or the extra service and care they often provide to the public and victims of crime. Here is one example worth sharing.

It was the holiday season and a woman stopped by a Christmas tree lot on Rainier Avenue with her grandchildren to pick out a couple of trees. For some reason, the operator of the lot was not willing to help secure the trees on top of her car, so she tried her best to do it herself

As she pulled out of the lot onto Rainier Avenue, the trees suddenly slid off the roof of the car. And as luck would have it, a police car happened to be behind her.

You can probably write your own ending to this story. Some of you would assume that the officer cited the woman for having an unsecured load, which is a $124 violation. Others might expect that the officer helped the woman clear the roadway and left her with the challenge of dealing with the two trees.

You would be wrong in both scenarios! Officer Anthony Venera decided to help the woman and her grandkids by loading the two trees into his patrol car and he delivered them to her home. She was very pleased to receive this type of service and wrote a thank you note to the chief. It stated that in a time when police are receiving so much negative attention, she felt it was important to share her positive experience.

The fourth priority will seem a bit anti-climactic, given the stories I just shared with you. But believe me, establishing a sustainable fiscal strategy is very important to this city.

Every year, the cost of maintaining basic city services increases but our revenues do not grow at the same rate due to the taxing policies of this state.

Fifteen years ago, the motor vehicle excise tax was repealed, eliminating a lot of local dollars. In 2001, the state limited the growth of property tax to 1% per year; growth that was previously was capped at 6%, which helped cities keep up with inflation. The state also reduced the share of revenue we used to receive from the liquor excise tax and profits, money that was dedicated to support law enforcement costs.

As you know, cities receive a very small portion of the total property and sales taxes collected. For each dollar collected for property taxes, Renton receives 23 cents.

For sales taxes, we receive less than 10 cents for every dollar collected. Yet cities are expected to provide the bulk of government services that are important to the public, from police and fire protection, parks and trails, road repairs to many other services.
While overall sales taxes have increased in recent years due to the improved economy, they are just now back up to the level we received in 2008.

We’ve made some changes to address these shortfalls, including instituting a Business and Occupation Tax, which we resisted for years, even though all cities our size in King County already utilized this revenue source.

The effort to overcome the ongoing structural deficit in our budget will continue to be a challenge in future years.

ACCOMPLISHMENTS

I want to spend a few minutes reviewing some of our accomplishments the past few years.

Despite the recession, we were successful at receiving $118 million dollars in state and federal transportation grants that allowed us to improve key roadways in our city including the redesign and construction of Rainier Avenue.

And you’ll be happy to know that work will begin soon on the reconstruction of Logan St. past the Renton Stadium leading from Airport Way to N. 6th Street.

Our city is safer than a few years ago, and we’re better at addressing issues when they arise. Making our community a safer place to live cannot be accomplished by police alone. Internally, we address ongoing issues utilizing multiple departments with the intent to find a sustainable solution to problems.

I mentioned last year about the challenges we had with several local drinking establishments, which had become a major public safety concern and nuisance for nearby residents. Through the efforts of several departments, every one of the problem businesses has since closed or changed their operations to a point where the neighborhoods are no longer being negatively impacted.

We have partnered with the Renton School District to help fund and reinstate School Resource Officers at each of our high schools. This is in addition to continuing the Adopt-a-School Program where officers routinely visit schools in their districts. I want to thank Superintendent Merri Rieger and her staff for the collaborative partnership we have with the district.

The Fire Department’s February Heart Month continues to be a huge success. This program is designed to help residents detect if they have high blood pressure and high blood sugar. This program was expanded to include young kids in the Renton School District and residents from different ethnic communities that may not have access to health care prevention. To date, fire fighters have screened over 55,000 adults and children, and found 18% of those checked, including a number of young kids, to be at risk.

Our economic development strategy, which was first started 20 years ago, continues to help build the strength and quality of our community. It means new jobs and helps to sustain quality of life amenities for local residents and workers.

We all know about the success of The Landing, and this urban center continues to attract new tenants. It’s a real success story.
But it’s equally exciting to see all the other development activity taking place.

Right now, we have nearly $300 million dollars in new projects underway, from a new high-end waterfront hotel at Southport to a new IKEA store. There is another $300 million dollars in projects that are in the planning process today.

For those of you who are not math majors, this amounts to more than a half billion dollars of private investment in this community!

This includes a large office complex planned on 12 acres of land near the Federal Reserve Bank that will house the new administrative offices for Group Health Cooperative. This project, alone, means more than 1,000 new jobs in our city!

And next to the new 12-story hotel that is under construction on the Lake Washington shoreline, Michael Christ has submitted plans to construct three office towers that will feature 736,000 square feet of Class A office space.

Our auto dealers continue to thrive with new investments being made each year. I mentioned earlier that Renton Honda recently opened a new showroom and service department on East Valley Road. Their showroom spans an acre in size and can display several hundred autos inside their facility.

The owners of Renton Honda are converting their former location at Grady and Rainier to house their KIA dealership, which should open soon. And CarMax, the largest used-car dealership in the nation, has purchased the former movie theater complex on East Valley Road to locate its new facility.

Hampton Inn and Marriott Residence Inn are both in the design process for new hotels on Lake Washington Blvd. across from Gene Coulon Park.

Two new libraries are planned to be completed this fall and the aerospace training center at the airport will be under construction this fall.

And PACCAR is currently constructing a new, 200,000-square-foot parts distribution center.

Our downtown revitalization emphasis is moving forward.

A quality mixed-used, five-story complex will break ground this month at S. 2nd and Main Avenue S. It will feature 101 apartment units with 4,000 square feet of retail space on the main floor.

In concert with this new project, the city will be converting S. Main Street to two-way traffic, from Mill Street near the new library to S. 3rd.

This project will include a new plaza-like intersection at S. 2nd that will transform this intersection into a welcoming gateway to the downtown with wide sidewalks for outside dining and attractive landscaping features.

The Renton Western Wear building has been sold and will hopefully become the home of a couple restaurants or possibly a brew pub. And we’re actively working with several potential developers interested in building in the downtown.

In concert with these projects, the city will be examining our street patterns to see how we can reduce commuter traffic through the area to create a more destination and pedestrian-friendly community. Currently, 65% of the cars traveling through the downtown are not stopping and are merely bypassing the freeway.

We will be designing a new piazza park that will include the former BIG 5 lot. It’s our goal to make this a very active community park that can accommodate year-round activities including music in the park, farmer’s market, and possibly a water feature for kids. There will be a public process to determine what our residents would like to see included in this park.

There is a newly formed association of business and property owners downtown, working closely with the Chamber, to address beautification and improvement opportunities for the area and to promote more downtown activities.

We’re very excited at the level of redevelopment activity in the downtown!

Another huge project for this community is the Sunset Area Community Revitalization. I know you have heard about this over the past year or so.

The vision for a renewed Sunset neighborhood is finally becoming reality. It represents a complete overhaul of a community that has been dominated by a lot of substandard housing, many serving low income families with few neighborhood amenities.

This transformation is happening thanks to a well-organized partnership between the city, Renton Housing Authority and Colpitts Development, a private developer. It’s underway now and if you haven’t driven past Sunset Blvd. and Harrington in the Highlands, it’s worth the trip.

When completed, the Sunset community will include a new, state-of-the art library, surrounded by quality multi-family housing complexes and new housing units for low income families. It will be a walkable community with bike and walking paths, leading from Sunset Blvd. north to the new Meadow Crest Early Childhood Center and the beautiful inclusive playground.

This new housing will surround a 3.7-acre community park and we project a large amount of new retail development in the nearby shopping centers.

Much of this work is already underway and Renton Housing Authority, in partnership with King County Housing Authority, have applied for a $30 million dollar federal grant that will provide more amenities to this community as well as more than double the number of available housing units for low income residents.

IN SUMMARY:

There are a lot of exciting things happening throughout our community. Back when Mayor Clymer was trying to jumpstart the local economy, the city could not survive without Boeing. While Boeing remains our largest employer, and a vital partner to the health of this city, our workforce has diversified to a point where we have thousands of new jobs that now represent 65% of the workforce. We expect to see continued growth with new companies that will equate into more jobs.

We’re very fortunate in Renton to have strong leadership from the city council, who are committed to setting policies that are vital to the future of this community.

This city has earned a positive reputation throughout this region. Many families and young professionals are relocating here from Mercer Island, Bellevue and other parts of the county.

Renton is often mentioned in very positive terms by the public and media. After all, we’re home to the Super Bowl champions and the most successful commercial airplane company in the world! And we have a beautiful river and lake, surrounded by world-class parks and trails.

We also have people who truly care about this community and their neighbors, and the future of our city.

I think our future is very bright!