Federal Way faces long-term challenges | Mayor Skip Priest

During World War II, in one of his inspirational speeches to rally the British people, Winston Churchill said, “What is the use of living, if it be not to strive for noble causes and to make this muddled world a better place for those who will live in it after we are gone?”

The challenges facing our city are, of course, mild compared to the dangers Churchill rallied his people to face, but securing the future of our city must focus our attention in a similar manner. Failing to do so would see us lose ground and leave a poorer city to future generations.

From 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Jan. 22, we will hold our annual Federal Way City Council retreat at the Dumas Bay Centre. Please join myself and council members as we discuss how to meet the future, while maintaining a top-notch city that is a great place to live.

The challenges we face are significant. The greatest economic disruption since the Great Depression has strained city budgets here and across the country.

A $9 million budget deficit for the 2011-2012 budget was closed through layoffs and other difficult cost-reduction measures. We must still solve a nearly $5 million deficit for the 2013-2014 budget cycle, according to our latest projections.

A top priority for discussions at the retreat will be planning to develop a sustainable long-term budget, which is something we must do if we wish to maintain high quality city services and a first-rate police force.

Aside from the current economy, there are also significant, long-term pressures squeezing suburban cities, as detailed by the 2010 Brookings Institute report, “The Suburbanization of Poverty.”

Suburban populations are getting older (something my own kids remind me that I’m on the leading edge of) and requiring more services as they age. At the same time, gentrification of cities has priced lower-income people into the more affordable suburbs like Federal Way.

In just nine years, the percentage of students in the Federal Way School District who are on the free and reduced lunch population has grown from 28 percent to 51 percent.

Falling commercial real estate prices have begun to draw businesses out of the suburbs and back into the cities, making our economic development goals that much more difficult. The suburban squeeze combined with a poor economy puts an increasing demand for city services in conflict with real limits on our revenue.

In the short-term, we simply have to live within our means, while finding ways to do more with less. As your Federal Way mayor, I have implemented a philosophy of frugal innovation. We are finding creative ways to maintain high quality service, while containing and reducing costs.

Every dollar of taxpayer money is important, and I am working with the city council and staff to find ways, both small and large, to cut costs. We’ve stopped providing snacks at some meetings. We’ll save $4,500 by not using a facilitator at the retreat. At the other end of the scale, we’ve implemented significant management changes that will save the city $885,000 over the next two years.

As to the long-term challenges of the suburban squeeze, we are able to address these problems from a position of strength. Federal Way is a great place to live, work and raise a family. We have high quality public schools. We have an outstanding police department and are one of the safest communities in South King County. We have a responsive business environment and we are a green community enhanced by beautiful open spaces and parks.

At the council retreat, we will begin focusing in earnest on five topics essential to moving the city forward: developing a sustainable city budget, stimulating economic development, ensuring public safety, visioning the design and development of a downtown civic center and planning for community festivals.

Citizens can learn about these issues as we begin to address them. The council and I want to hear community members’ ideas and suggestions as we develop strategies. Please make your voice heard as we strive in the noble cause of building a positive future for Federal Way.

Please call the mayor’s office at (253) 835-2400 if you have any questions about the upcoming city council retreat or questions about city government. I am proud to be your Federal Way mayor.

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