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Federal Way mayor candidates debate budgets and business | ELECTION 2010
Federal Way's mayoral candidates went head-to-head in a debate Monday at Federal Way High School.
In front of roughly 100 onlookers, Federal Way City Councilman Jim Ferrell and State Rep. Skip Priest answered 19 questions, most of them submitted to a moderator by audience members. The candidates let their views be known on issues such as the city's expected $9 million budget shortfall, economic development, annexation and communication with the public.
Ferrell stressed the importance of public safety, carefully planned economic development and frugal spending. He said his biggest priorities as mayor, if elected, will be to cut unnecessary spending and save police officers.
"This job is not about trying to figure out which way the wind blows," Ferrell said. "It’s about being a leader."
Priest highlighted his long career serving the Federal Way community and his experience managing a budget and staff. He stressed the importance of a balanced budget, economic growth and electing a leader who is able to work collaboratively and bring city staff, city council and the public together to make choices regarding Federal Way's future. Priest said his main priorities are presenting a balanced budget and attracting jobs to the city.
A primary topic was how the candidates plan to address the city's $9 million shortfall in its 2011-2012 budget. If elected, Ferrell does not plan to hire a city administrator to help manage the city and budget. Though he does not have experience managing an organization the size of Federal Way, which employs roughly 300 people and has a $40 million general budget, Ferrell does have experience as a King County prosecutor. The position has taught him management skills, he said.
Ferrell plans to cut costs by reviewing the budget line by line and eliminating unnecessary spending. He suggested cutting back on the money dedicated to the city's asphalt overlay program and capital projects such as the South 352nd Street extension. Decreasing officials' travels to Washington, D.C., and abroad is another cost-savings effort Ferrell favors. These moves will help the city avoid laying off crucially needed police officers, he said.
"We do not have to cut police officers and I won’t as your mayor," Ferrell said.
Priest said his experiences owning his own business and working for companies such as American Express and Burlington Northern will help him make wise financial decisions for the city. He too suggested ways to cut costs. If elected, Priest does not plan to hire a city administrator to help with daily operations. Decreasing the number of staff members at City Hall will cut back on costs and cannot be avoided, Priest said. Finding innovative ways to decrease costs the city pays for employee health benefits is necessary, Priest said. The mayor must not rely on one-time funding — money only available for a short time and not able to be counted on regularly — to balance the budget, he said.
"You can’t make one-time dollars carry a budget because it’s not sustainable," Priest said. "Ultimately, it's about revenues."
Both candidates agreed on the importance of attracting business to Federal Way and growing the economy. They each said they disagree with the city council's recent decision to award Twin Development a seventh extension on an agreement to purchase the former AMC Theatres site and develop it as a mixed-use center with high-rises. Ferrell feels the developer was unable to follow through on a promise and the city council has wasted too much time and effort on a project that is not materializing, as the council had first imagined it would three years ago. Priest said he disagreed with the city council's decision because Twin Development was unable to produce a business plan.
The candidates agreed that Federal Way needs to attract businesses. A mayor with a deep understanding of retail is the key to doing that, Ferrell said. Working closely with The Commons Mall is necessary to spurt economic growth in Federal Way, he said.
Attracting businesses that were once outsourced but are now returning to the Puget Sound, as well as associations and jobs in the medical field, is the way to grow Federal Way, Priest said.
Neither candidate supports an annexation if it's not approved by the voters. Ferrell said he respects the desires of residents living in Federal Way's east annexation area and will not proactively push for their annexation. Priest agreed.
"I actually believe that the annexation issue must be decided by the people," Priest said.
However, as mayor, Priest said he would hold discussions with residents in the unincorporated area and possibly the King County Sheriff's Office to address ways to keep individuals just outside Federal Way's city limits safe. He floated the idea of the county contracting with Federal Way to provide police services to the area.
Both men feel communicating with the public will be an essential part of their job as mayor. The candidates both support conducting intimate town hall meetings. They each support retaining the city's local cable channel, Channel 21, as a means to educate the public on city happenings. Both also feel public outreach will be part of their mayoral duties.
If elected mayor, Ferrell said he will act as an ombudsmen. Since being elected to the city council in 2003, Ferrell has desired the city hire an ombudsmen, a person whom residents know they can turn to if they have complaints, problems or concerns about Federal Way.
"We are going to have one now and it’s called the mayor," he said. "I will go to work every day and work hard for you."
As for needing an ombudsman, Priest said elected leaders should already be serving as one.
"When people come to you for help, you respond. You don't need a title," he said.
Ferrell and Priest won their positions as the top two candidates for the city's first elected mayor by finishing ahead of current mayor Linda Kochmar and city council member Mike Park in the August primary election. Ferrell, who helped pass a citizens initiative to allow Federal Way residents to elect their own mayor, was the first to join the mayoral race shortly following the initiative's passing in November 2009. Ferrell announced his official standing as a candidate in April 2010.
Priest originally said he was against an elected mayor for Federal Way and preferred the current council/manager form of government.
In November, Federal Way's form of government will change from a city manager/city council setup to an elected mayor/city council setup. In the current form of government, the city manager is hired by the city council and typically has professional management and financing experience; the mayor is a mostly ceremonial position awarded to a currently serving council member by his or her peers.
An elected mayor is not required to have any former legislative, financial or managerial experience.
An informal poll at the Sept. 27 debate asked two questions of attendees:
• After hearing tonight's candidates, if the election were today, whom would you vote for as mayor? Of the audience members who responded, 29 picked Jim Ferrell and 29 picked Skip Priest.
• Did your vote change after hearing these debates? If so, who were you going to vote for? The final tally of audience members who answered was 21 for Ferrell, 31 for Priest and 48 for "no change."
At the top of this story, watch a video of closing statements by Skip Priest and Jim Ferrell at the Sept. 27 debate.