Time to simplify, Bainbridge City Council
June 24, 2008 · Updated 3:49 PM
An open letter to members of the Bainbridge Island City Council:
You have a difficult job ahead of you. As you do it, you should expect a lot of citizen disappointment and, naturally, the resulting flood of criticism from your constituents whose pet city projects no longer make sense. You have run into the cruel fact that there is simply not enough money to fund it all. Please be brave enough to face it and say no to the fluff and yes to performing the basic duties of a city government, namely, safety, infrastructure and health. Stop being so sure you have the knowledge and moral authority to order the future of our city. What will our future citizens have to say about your plans if you’re proven wrong?
If our present citizens want something beyond those basic services badly enough, they should be willing to raise the funds themselves. If they find the public doesn’t particularly care to fund their project, perhaps it wasn’t so important to the body politic as they had imagined.
If I might be forward and make some observations on your monetary plight, let us first look from the expenditure side. Remember, the council has the purse strings, thus you collectively have the ultimate power to order all city business, set staff levels and assign relative importance to the city’s various functions. Do not be timid about using this power.
Every rule, every process, every permit requirement you as the council make demands someone to process, enforce, study, record, file and adjudicate it. To my mind, it follows that past councils have enacted far, far too many unneeded rules, permits and processes. Get rid of the redundant, confusing and unnecessary ones, and then the city simply requires fewer and less expensive staff. Speaking of staff, please change the primary staff function from being rule makers to being service providers. We desperately need more street fixers, certainly not more planners.
Look at the cost of process. As an example, why spend another $185,000 on consultants to further research a fix for Rockaway? You have two excellent studies in hand already. Pick the most cost effective way to solve the problem and make the decision to solve it. Further delay just costs more. If the need for beach nourishment is the key to a solution, then consider how much a sturdy bulkhead plus timely truckloads of sand costs versus over $2 million for a bridge. The bulkhead looks pretty safe to me. In fact, the $185,000 consultant fee should pay for about a third of the bulkhead. The lesson here is to find the cost-effective solution then not dither any more.
Every project the city engages in seems to be far more costly than the same project performed in the private sector. Why? For example, the waterfront restroom is budgeted to cost more than a modest new home to construct. A public restroom requires no more than concrete walls, dividers and floors, a metal roof, steel doors and waterproof paint making it easy to clean. Bulletproof is what you want, not elegant. If you want it pretty, encourage garden clubs to plant flowers around it. If you insist on showers, make them pay-to-use. Two hundred dollars a square foot seems quite reasonable, even excessive, to build a public restroom.
Consider ways to make your public policy goals be solved by using appropriate private-sector encouragement. There are quality businesspeople that are willing and able to solve the affordable housing shortage without a penny of public funding. Make the appropriate zoning and regulatory changes to let them do their job. The obvious and necessary trade off is that resultant housing will of necessity be high density and lower value than we are used to.
There is no more money for good works. What we want are works that are good.
Now for the second part of your budget problem – income. It has been a long-term policy of the city to avoid allowing more retail, business and health care facilities to be built, the assumption being the city could rely on residential construction fees and tax income to float the boat forever. It’s now clear that was a faulty assumption. Non-residential uses (in fact, all uses) are discouraged by restrictive zoning, denial of services (sewer and water) and myriad of other regulatory hindrances that eat out our substance. So what do we citizens get for this? We spend our sales tax dollars in another polity where it funds someone else’s schools, roads and services. Further, we now have to pay $4.50 per gallon for fuel to make the 16-to 35-mile round trip. While we pollute the air, our city loses money and so do we. Brilliant!
We are now populous enough for our island to need a hospital and its associated services. We need a significant increase in retail, not all Mom and Pop stores, to meet our shopping needs. We need a business friendly environment for office, professional, artistic, esoteric manufacturing and the like. We need a place where our extraordinarily talented citizens can work without needing to commute away from their neighborhoods. We need competition and tax revenue. We also need to get over our conceit that we are rural. For goodness sakes, look about you, one cannot throw a rock without breaking a window around here. Commercial farming stopped being a viable on-island business many decades ago. The income one can generate by raising foodstuff will not serve to pay property tax, much less be able to fund the capital costs of an agricultural business.
So, stop spending money on consultants. Be decisive. You are smart people; make the calls using your own intellect and knowledge. You don’t need any cover, you were elected to make these decisions. Do your job and then be darn proud you did it.
Good luck to you all and thank you for your attention.
Albert Greiner is a Rockaway Beach resident.