University Place City Council hopefuls battled over finances, spending, law enforcement, growth and other issues in front of a live audience at Curtis High School Thursday night.
Sponsored by the League of Women Voters, the forum featured candidates , , , , and .
Keel and Smith are seeking the Position 2 City Council seat. Campbell and Nye are vying for Position 6. Belleci and Lee are running for Position 7.
Keel touted his leadership experience as a 10-year member of the University Place School Board and noted that local schools are financial healthy. At the same time, he attacked his opponent's lack of experience in public office.
Smith countered that he has been a volunteer for different regional causes for more than 20 years.
Campbell said that as a naturalized citizen, he feels a “duty and obligation” to participate in government. Nye, meanwhile, said he is running because the city has unresolved issues and he is a problem-solver.
Appointed to the City Council last December to fill an unexpired term, Belleci emphasized her experience as a volunteer and government appointee at the local, regional and state level. Her priorities, she said, are to beef up public safety and encourage economic growth.
Lee, a retired U.S. Naval officer and merchant sea captain, has lived in the area 33 years and wants the city to focus on reducing its debt.
Among the questions submitted by audience members was what to do about a pending development proposal to build 100 apartments, offices and retail space next to an existing library as part of the city's proposed Town Center project.
“It looks like a good idea and worth investigating and moving forward with that process,” Smith said.
Campbell, however, said he is disappointed with the idea.
“Look what we’re going to get from the developer,” he said. “We’re going to get $800,000 in cash and some business and apartment space. We need to evaluate how much money we have invested and whether we’re selling this at fire-sale prices.”
Nye characterized the plan as a win for the community and a good idea.
“Developers brought the process forward… let the developers do their job,” he said. “Once the contract is signed… they’ll make it happen.”
Belleci said the proposal meets the vision for the Town Center and will generate sales-tax revenue and ultimately provide housing choices.
“We have a local developer who has the funds available,” she said. “It’s on a short track. He has met all the design criteria. Our vision is slowly being realized as a result of this sale.”
Lee said he is concerned whether parking will be sufficient.
“The only positive … is if it does come to fruition, it will show there is some movement with the Town Center.”
Keel said he is just excited that a developer is willing to put up cash and build somethng in town.
“I’ve got some concerns…about the size of those apartments…and the notion they can charge 30 percent more than the going rate,” he said. “And, what’s it going to look like 10 or 15 years from now?”
As for whether city services, such as law enforcement and road maintenance have been adequate in the wake of municipal belt-tightening in recent years, most of the candidates said local law-enforcement service needs shoring up.
Campbell said only a small amount of state funding comes back to the city and virtually all of it goes toward public safety. He criticized the cost of debt service for the Town Center, saying it has drawn money away from public safety.
“A couple of years ago, the police force staff was cut and road maintenance was deferred,” he said. “Revenue over the last 10 years has increased almost 40 percent. There should be enough revenue. But we’re going to have to rely more and more on volunteers to do services for the city.”
Nye countered that current services are adequate - considering the overall economic picture.
“Tough decisions have been made and made in a disciplined manner,” he said.
Belleci said that while police service is inadequate, it is the best University Place can afford with curren budget constraints.
“A priority for the last 18 months has been to increase police service,” she said. “But when we have 8 percent of our property taxes…going to police service, that doesn’t provide enough. The only way to get an increase is to get the sales tax going.”
Lee said the city is mired in debt and not likely to get voter approval for bond-measure bailouts.
“We are at our debt ceiling. As a result, services have been cut to the core level and cannot be restored until revenue is generated and the debt is reduced,” he said. “The city has to make University Place a business-friendly place. Then, slowly but surely, we’ll get the debt reduced.”
Keel said more police officers are needed, along with parks and recreation services.
“Having to use donors is good at some level…but I think we need to up that a bit,” he said. “We need to something about debt service. We have to pay it down. You do that by attracting business and raising the tax base. That’s what I’ll concentrate on.”
Smith said the city is providing only bare essentials.
“We need to have some strategic goals and plans in place,” he said. “The city has done some great work with grants. How (can) we partner with other communities and go together with them on some grants?”
The candidates also were asked what they would do if it came down to laying off more police officers or increasing taxes?
“I’d have to say we raise taxes,” Nye said. “Public safety comes first.”
Belleci said government’s first priority is public safety.
“I’d have to ask for a tax increase,” she said.
Lee, too, said he would opt for hiking taxes.
“We need to keep our police force at the current level,” he said. “It can’t stand any more reduction.”
Keel also favored raising taxes as a last resort. While agreeing that the city cannot afford to lose more officers, Smith said voters have already said they do not want more taxes.
The candidates also split as to whether the city should eliminate traffic impact fees. The fees are levied on new businesses to offset their effect on local infrastructure.
Campbell said the fees are a burden on business and chase it away. Belleci characterized them as controversial, but noted that business affects traffic flow, which affects the community at large.
“Have (traffic) impact fees stalled businesses? I don’t think so,” she said. “Each jurisdiction has some sort of fees that they require businesses to pay. They just don’t all call them traffic impact fees.”
Lee said UP’s fees and regulations should be comparable to those of neighboring communities.
“Traffic impact fees are fees that give again and again and again as businesses move in and out,” he said. “UP has to become business friendly and that is not the case I’ve found.”
Keel said the city’s fees and taxes are higher than those of other locales.
“We need to make sure that we are comparable with other cities,” he said.
Smith said the city should gather data and compare its fees to those levied elsewhere.
Added Campbell, “We not only have competition with other cities, we have competition within the city. We need to find ways to help businesses survive that first year.”