It’s filing week for candidates. Who will win, and will our priorities change?
Building the Performing Arts and Event Center or a park is fun for elected officials. It begins with a ground breaking and ends with a ribbon cutting, and the elected official gets his or her picture in the paper. Announcing a new committee or initiative achieves the same result. But governing in today’s society carries a much deeper responsibility than just stage-setting a photo opportunity with a shovel, ribbon or press release. And whoever emerges as mayor and council members next November will have a lot of unfinished work to do.
When your neighbors elect you to office, they give you a rare, once-in-a lifetime opportunity to make a difference in community members’ lives. They trust you to put them above yourself and the election.
In politics, a picture is worth a thousand words in a weekly news cycle, and every politician collects them for their re-election value.
But actions will always speak louder than words and outweigh photographs when measuring community success. Governing is about performance.
Actions suggest the PAEC has been the highest priority at City Hall for many years under two different mayors. So important was its groundbreaking that at least one well-known elected official appeared to be left out of the picture on purpose. The ribbon will be cut Aug. 19, and getting between donors, supporters, elected officials and the ribbon could be a dangerous place. At $33 million, it will be the most expensive city project ever, a title it will likely keep for many years, even though only a small portion of our population will be able to afford to take a family of four to a performance more than once a year.
City Hall says public safety is the highest priority, and they want to add nine police officers. A police officer costs about $100,000 per year. But the city says it can’t afford to add officers without a raise in taxes now, and then again in 2018-19, totaling over $1 million. The subsidy for the PAEC will be about $300,000 per year, and the city has already dipped into the internal loan for construction, which was hoped to be unnecessary.
The PAEC will continue to need subsidy for several years, and the city may only have enough for two officers. Which one is the top priority?
And what about those other photo opportunities that will show up in campaign brochures this summer? How do they balance against our most important resource, our residents? What are our priorities, and what happened after the picture was taken?
The famous, and now somewhat embarrassing “branding” project, cost over $60,000, and the city received very little return on its investment.
The “college initiative” was so important to the mayor and council that they spent $75,000 on a needs assessment. After the front page story and photo in January, the issue went silent, however, and only recently did any meetings occur to start working on goals in the memorandum of understanding. The city doesn’t have any money for it, and officials say they are looking for financial support from the Legislature in 2018.
Our homeless challenge? It cost the city $30,000 to clean up each homeless camp, and there were 12 or more scattered throughout the city. Despite the fact the city did everything it could to encourage homeless people to go live elsewhere, many are still here. The city did contribute to a day center, but that support lacked enthusiasm, and when winter arrives people will still be sleeping outside.
Let’s not forget the committee formed to help homeless mothers and children. Here again, after a high-profile press release, there has not been significant financial support from City Hall — two supportive co-chairs, some staff time, but no real money. They may have to consider land with uncomfortable strings attached for a location unless the city steps up and takes its own idea seriously. Where will this former front page story be when winter arrives?
And lastly, the answer to last year’s murders, the violence prevention committee. The volunteers worked hard and produced some thoughtful recommendations that, if followed, might make adding more police officers unnecessary. Again, the city said “great, but we don’t have any money.” What did the city think the community would expect when the committee submitted the report?
When the ribbon gets cut at the PAEC in August, how many people will be sleeping outside knowing they may still be there in December? Will that include mothers and children? Will the violence prevention committee or the college initiative have the financial support needed? Will the city have added more than two officers or raised taxes?
It’s election season and time to choose a direction. Listen carefully to the candidates. Which way do you want to go? Performance, or press releases and photo ops? Or to borrow a phrase from the election to change the form of government, “Accountability Comes to Town.”
Federal Way resident Bob Roegner is a former Auburn mayor and retired public official. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.