Since early in 2019, I have spent many hours talking with fellow Islanders about the issues the City is facing. Below I recap my thoughts about our conversations and how I plan to address the critical issues and important decisions we will face.
Tree-lined streets, private spaces, modest traffic, and resplendent views help define Mercer Island. Residents have told me that these features must be protected, and I agree that the City must work to preserve the character of our residential neighborhoods. It's what we love most about living here.
Mercer Island has about 475 acres of parkland. Open space is important, as are facilities that support our residents who love swimming, boating, strolling, sports, off-leash dog areas, concerts, and theater. We must protect our parkland. At the same time, recreational, cultural, and arts facilities that benefit the community can be an important part of our parks. These facilities can enrich everyone’s experiences without ever leaving the community we call home.
Mercer Island is more than a city. It is a community where we watch out for each other. Sometimes we pay for services we do not need or use, because others use those services, and we know that they do the same for us. Seniors pay for schools. Young families pay for geriatric services. Athletes pay for the arts. Artists pay for sports fields. Drivers pay for bike lanes. And bike riders pay for automobile parking spots. On Mercer Island, that is what community means.
Unlike in some other states, where property taxes grow or shrink based on the assessed value of property, city property tax collections are only allowed to grow by 1% each year on existing construction, unless citizens approve more. If property appreciates, the rate automatically drops to offset. By law the City must operate within the constraints of a balanced budget. Since the regional inflation rate is more than 3%, and most expenses grow with inflation, Mercer Island, like other Washington cities, faces a growing structural imbalance. This problem is particularly acute for Mercer Island because property taxes are a disproportionately large share of city revenues, since our retail sales tax collections are small.
City staff are engaged in a constant struggle to operate more cost-effectively. Council members must work with them to find creative ways to wisely steward taxpayer dollars. Both the Council and staff leaders need to understand and meet the community’s priorities, and ensure that revenue is adequate to efficiently deliver the services that Islanders want.
Providing safe water and a functional sewer system are primary duties of city government. The water and sewer systems on Mercer Island are aging. The council needs to establish a long-term plan for assessing risks to these systems and funding necessary replacements and upgrades. As an actuary, I am uniquely qualified to engage in the long-term planning required for such an exercise.
Mercer Islanders depend upon professional, timely, and effective police and fire services. Locally controlled services are the best way to ensure that we maintain the service levels and quick response times that we value.
Further development of retail and dining facilities in Town Center would benefit Islanders in multiple ways. A more vibrant downtown would boost our tax base, which is unusually dependent on property taxes, and make Mercer Island a more interesting place to live.
City policy and strategic planning should encourage and plan for such development in town center. On the planning commission, I am leading an effort to document goals for economic development into the city comprehensive plan. On the council, I will work to improve Mercer Island’s support for local businesses and ensure that CPD understands that they need to prioritize timely quality service to businesses. In particular, one of my priorities will be helping the City develop a strategy for appropriate Town Center development that attracts and nurtures the businesses and services that Islanders value.
The best government is an open government. The City already offers many opportunities to engage in open discussion and online interaction. Many of our residents, however, may not be aware of these tools and resources. I will work to make sure city leaders engage with residents, and that Islanders understand the motivations behind important decisions.
Development impact fees and service fees must be set at levels that are consistent with the impact these developments have. Further, the City must make every effort to be sure that low income seniors or persons with disabilities are shielded from property tax increases to the maximum extent possible.
As an island, we enjoy being separated from Seattle and Bellevue, while also being close enough to easily commute for work, shopping, or dining. While the City Council must represent the interests of islanders, we cannot ignore regional politics or developments. Active participation in regional matters will ensure we can protect our interests and find the best long-term solutions for our community.
Our island geography creates many benefits, but also many challenges. Our only ways off the island are two bridges. It is in our interests to work with our regional partners to be sure that buses, trains, autos, and bicycles move across the island to Bellevue and Seattle as quickly as possible. I believe effective mass transit is important to Islanders and the region, but Mercer Island must not absorb an undue burden from solving regional transit issues.
Our park and ride space is inadequate to support even current levels of commuter access. I am committed to finding “last mile solutions” to get commuters to the light rail / bus, including shuttle services, fixed bus routes, e-bikes, bike lanes, smart carpool technology, and, eventually, driverless cars.
Environmental protection and sustainability
One of Mercer Island’s greatest characteristics is its natural beauty. It is important to ensure that development regulations and zoning are compatible with preventing erosion, protecting air and water quality, supporting biodiversity, reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, and maintaining tree cover and wildlife habitat. Mercer Island is already a national leader in sustainability among small cities. I am committed to continuing that effort.
Climate change is an existential threat, and the City must work cooperatively with regional partners to address this threat. The King County Cities Climate Collaboration (K4C) group calls on cities to reduce their GHG emissions 50% by 2030 and 80% by 2050. I am working with my fellow planning commission members to codify this goal in the city’s comprehensive plan. I hope that the pending revisions to the comprehensive plan will further commit the City to regular measurement of GHG emissions and integrating environmental impact, and particularly GHG impact, into all City decisions. In addition, the City needs to develop a Climate Action Plan to establish a strategy for achieving GHG targets.
Youth Theater Northwest is a huge asset for Mercer Island’s families. It has been a central part of the cultural, emotional, artistic, and social development of thousands of island children. Finding a home for this Island institution is very important to the future quality of life in our community.
Fortunately, a group of dedicated private citizens are working to raise the money needed to build a new home for YTN in a new "Mercer Island Center for the Arts" (MICA).
City leaders have developed a plan for a mixed-use development on the site of the old Tully's that will provide both a home for MICA and additional commuter parking. The city’s financial contribution to this effort will be limited to funds from the Sound Transit settlement dedicated to building parking facilities. This is a classic example of a creative win-win solution.
I fully support this effort and believe that this facility can be the centerpiece of a dynamic downtown and a gateway to the city. I will work hard to support this effort.
I believe a MICA constructed with private funds will be a tremendous gift to current and future generations of Islanders.
The pending decision on the bus intercept will have ramifications for our island for years to come. In my Island canvassing, the bus intercept issue has been raised by voters more than any other. Islanders have valid concerns, and the Council has a duty to hear and attempt to address these concerns. At the same time, there is a good deal of confusion about the facts surrounding the issue.
First, it is important to understand that the current Council takes this seriously. They have created a task force, including two council members, the police chief, the fire chief, and staff, to identify options and related ramifications in time for the August 20 Council meeting. This group has engaged an independent traffic consultant to assist. I fully support this effort and eagerly await their report.
As a member of the City Council, I recognize my primary duty would be to protect the interests of Islanders. We need to consider traffic congestion, safety, and mobility. As someone who has commuted by bus and train for virtually my entire adult life, I think transit access is critical to those who live on and visit our island. With proper planning and good design, light rail and bus service can be a tremendous benefit for the island. With bad design, we could end up with a solution that is not consistent with safety, mobility, or Islander interests.
I do not believe any of the intercept options proposed by Sound Transit are consistent with the 2017 settlement agreement between Sound Transit and the City, and none of these options are acceptable. In particular, the bus drop offs on the north side of North Mercer Way are not acceptable, as the pedestrians attempting to cross the street to access the train will create unacceptable traffic congestion and safety concerns.
All proposed solutions involve fewer buses than currently visit the island. This means that if this issue can be resolved, we have the possibility of a solution with negligible impacts to island traffic or resident safety while preserving east side commuting options for island residents and access to the island from the east side for people who work on or visit the island.
As we negotiate this issue, we need to recognize that, if we make unreasonable demands, we run the risk of ending up in court, where the existing $10 million settlement agreement may be put at risk, and Islanders will end up paying the legal costs of both sides. This is not in our interest.
We need to work with Sound Transit and Metro to find an alternative solution that meets the needs of all parties while preserving mobility and safety for island residents. As someone who has commuted by bus and train for virtually my entire adult life, I see how light rail and bus service can be a tremendous benefit for the island. This is a time for city leaders to stand tall to protect Island residents, while engaging in a collaborative and reasoned way to find win-win solutions for everyone.