By Tracy Record
West Seattle Blog editor
From “street disorder” to outdated laws, more than a dozen West Seattle businesspeople shared concerns with Mayor Mike McGinn during the West Seattle Chamber of Commerce‘s most recent “Lunch With LEO” (local elected officials) brown-bag-lunch conversations.
The businesses/organizations represented at the event earlier this month at the Senior Center of West Seattle spanned the peninsula, from Alki Kayak Tours in the north to Reflections Dental Centre (Westwood Village) in the south, from West 5 in The Junction to Huling Brothers Properties in The Triangle to South Seattle Community College on Puget Ridge – and more.
While generally listening sympathetically, at one point, the mayor did challenge an assertion about local police presence.
Declaring his appreciation for the city’s “strong neighborhoods,” he opened with a recap of this year’s budget process – which is in midstream right now; he presented his proposal on September 26th, and the City Council is continuing to hold committee meetings to review it and, in some cases, craft counterproposals (you can track the process here).
And the mayor warned economic boom times don’t seem to be around the corner, even though some contend the latest recession is over. While 10,000 jobs have been added in Seattle since that recession bottomed out – costing 35,000 jobs along the way – they don’t pay as well as most of the jobs that were lost, he noted. And since government revenue is down – particularly real-estate excise tax – this year, the city’s dealing with a $25 million budget gap, coming off the preceding year’s $67 million gap, and 2013-2014 aren’t expected to be any rosier. He cited a $32 million projected gap for ’13 and $39 million the year after that. “We have to rethink how we do things … reset our baseline spending,” he observed, adding that balancing the budget without a “general tax increase” will be increasingly difficult.
But the numbers weren’t what the meeting participants wanted to talk about, when the mayor’s remarks made way for Q/A.
Half the general-fund budget of $900 million goes to public safety, noted McGinn, and yet issues remain for business owners. The ongoing presence of panhandlers and suspected drug sellers in the heart of The Junction came up almost immediately. Chamber board chair Dave Montoure of West 5 told the mayor that The Junction sorely misses the two police officers who used to focus on the area: “That resource has been taken away from us.” He said that panhandlers come to West Seattle from downtown, some posing as Real Change vendors, though the RC organization has done “badge checks” and identified the fakes.
Though some suspect that drug dealing is involved too, police haven’t been able to do much, he told the mayor. Montoure also made note of the recent letter, signed by the West Seattle Chamber among other neighborhood/business organizations from around the city (reported here on October 4th), all but begging for help with “street disorder” that plagues business districts and neighborhoods.
McGinn made a point of saying SPD has had “an emphasis on moving officers to patrol functions,” but suggested that arresting that type of problem person might not be the easiest solution (though he didn’t have an alternative to suggest). He mentioned the recent report that in Belltown, “the 54 most problematic individuals” accounted for more than 2,700 arrests. And he allowed that “low-level drug dealing is a challenge for the city to deal with.”
Not to mention, the business owners. Continuing around the table, they shared a variety of concerns. Deciduous street trees were at the heart of Steve Huling‘s main question; as they get bigger, their leaves clog storm drains, and they need pruning, but city arborists are behind. Mayor McGinn acknowledged that arborists and street trees are “chronically underfunded.” Huling said that even if a property owner wants to do some work on trees instead of awaiting city help, they have to go through some red tape. He urged the mayor to keep the tree-maintenance challenges in mind as the city pursues a greener vision for The Triangle.
The mention of storm drains caught the mayor’s attention; he subsequently suggested there needs to be more awareness of the Adopt-A-Drain program.
“I’m a tree owner too,” quipped Dave Salome next (an understatement, since more than a few trees grace the property he runs, Dignity Memorial-Forest Lawn Cemetery/Funeral Home (WSB sponsor) east of High Point. But his question involved revisiting decades-old city ordinances that are hampering businesses now, like one that he said has been on the books since the 1940s, prohibiting new cemetery development in the city limits – which has kept Forest Lawn, he said, from expanding onto some adjacent land it owns.
The mayor promised to “look into it” and mentioned a regulatory-reform program currently under way and tackling other outdated rules, such as one keeping a home-based business from employing more than two people, and another one raising the threshold for apartment-building projects having to be reviewed under the State Environmental Policy Act.
Monica Mulligan from Reflections Dental had a comment, not a concern, going back to the “street disorder” issue and echoing Montoure’s request for help. She mentioned the recent break-in at Giannoni’s Pizza and Taco Del Mar> and what she described as a colony of transients living on a corner of the shopping-center property. She and other health-care providers are worried they might be targeted by criminals suspecting their businesses might have drugs on hand – though, she emphasized, they do not.
Greg Whittaker of Alki Kayak Tours and Mountain to Sound Outfitters wondered how the city planned to pick up the ball the state had apparently dropped with cuts in funding for tourism promotion. (He’s been part of a “sustainable tourism” initiative with the Chamber.) McGinn said the city will get new money for promoting tourism via the $2 hotel-room surcharge recently approved by the City Council. After Whittaker declared, “West Seattle is the ‘natural’ part of ‘metronatural’,” McGinn added, “Getting people to get out of downtown and into our neighborhoods … should be one of our goals.”
But then that thorny issue of neighborhood safety resurfaced. Pete Spalding – who chairs the Southwest Precinct Advisory Council – said that various support positions are gone, and while major crimes are down, “burglaries, car prowls, burglary, etc., are on the rise … most of our patrol officers are going call to call, not able to be doing community policing.”
That’s when the mayor challenged the perception, contending that SPD is hitting the goal set of spending 30 percent of its time in a “proactive” role. In response to a later question about how the city would deal with any trouble caused by potentially increased bar hours – which are currently being pursued – McGinn said, “We have more tools to deal with disorder at night.”
The West Seattle Chamber’s next major event is the November membership luncheon, featuring a “memory trainer” with advice on how to remember everything your business requires you to remember – you can find more information on the Chamber’s website; you don’t have to be a member to attend, but there is a charge for lunch, also detailed on that page.