It probably sounds like a lot of money to most people, but sometimes $7 million just isn’t enough.
“I wish we had $70 million,” Bainbridge Island City Councilmember Joe Deets said.
He was talking about American Rescue Plan Act federal funds awarded to the city to help in the economic recovery caused by COVID-19 pandemic restrictions.
During public comments at the online council meeting on Zoom Tuesday night, several callers mentioned some of the money should be spent on attracting another primary care medical facility to town, since Swedish has left the area. Apparently there are two such businesses that are interested if they could get help through an ARPA subsidy.
Others said some of the funds should be spent on helping the city better prepare to get federal transportation funds. They said not being “shovel ready” with plans has caused them to miss out on such grants. Fixing transportation woes would help with city goals such as climate change, equality and health.
City manager Blair King said staff came up with a comprehensive list of possibilities totaling about $22 million. He asked the council to look over the list and pick their favorites. All of the councilmembers said they want time to get more information.
Councilmember Kirsten Hytopoulos said she thinks the Climate Advisory and Sustainable Transportation committees need to weigh in on the possibilities.
Councilmember Brenda Fantroy-Johnson agreed that more than just city staff and the council should be involved. She added she’d like to come up with her own short list of ideas, but admitted a replacement for Swedish sounded like a good idea.
“It’s a big decision. We’d like to think about it more and hear from more people,” Councilmember Christy Carr said.
A majority of the council liked the staff’s idea of spending money on the wastewater treatment plant so water could be reused.
“We should stop pumping sewage into Puget Sound, and find a better use for the water,” Councilmember Michael Pollock said.
Deets added, “It’s very bad that the treatment plant is nearing capacity.”
Mayor Rasham Nassar added that investing in sewer upgrades would “clean up Puget Sound for all” on the island. She mentioned that with future growth planned for the Winslow area and not elsewhere that means all islanders would benefit from improving utilities downtown. That was in response to Carr’s concern that some items on the list would not benefit residents island-wide.
Councilmember Leslie Schneider said she would like to see the city work with the Suquamish Tribe on some culverts, as it had asked BI for help last year. She said that could help in building up that relationship. “It’s tough to figure out where to put the money,” she admitted.
Transportation and affordable housing were two issues councilmembers were interested in financing, but found out ARPA funds are limited for those issues. King explained up to $2 million can be considered as “revenue replacement” for taxes cities lost because of COVID. So, that amount could go for transportation and affordable housing projects.
Schneider said she’d like to see funds for Madison Avenue improvements in that case.
Deets said he’d like to see $1 million for that project and the other $1 million for another one.
Pollock said while he supports sustainable transportation in theory he’s not in favor of “paving more of the island.”
Nassar seemed more in favor of spending on affordable housing. “Housing is a big part of the crisis of the pandemic,” she said, adding she’d like to find out from Housing Resources Bainbridge just how many people haven’t been able to stay in their homes and are seeking help.
A number of councilmembers also showed interest in getting a biodigester, which biologically digests organic material. Most food, including fat, greases, and even animal manure, can be processed in a biodigester.
Carr and Hytopoulos emphasized that they hope the money will be spent on something that might not be funded otherwise.
“We haven’t had funding for affordable housing or sustainable transportation,” Carr said. “I hope we focus on those projects. We’ve had no money to make that happen.” She said other projects that have been listed as priorities already have some funding and will likely get more.
Hytopoulos agreed. “I don’t want to sprinkle this around,” she said, adding projects should be weighted “with the goal of doing something that would not happen if it weren’t for these funds.”
Prior to the discussion, King reminded the council of their criterion for ARPA funds: It’s one-time money so avoid recurring costs; results must be long-lasting, more than 50 years; fiscal and environmental sustainability; prioritize projects that can only be achieved with these one-time funds; and an added benefit if they can be leveraged for other funds.
Projects could involve: public health, premium pay for essential workers, revenue replacement and investments in water, sewer and broadband.
There was also a follow-up discussion on the upcoming Highway 305 roundabouts to be built by the state Department of Transportation led by Public Works director Chris Wierzbicki.
Hytopoulos mentioned the $40,000 wall that would save a “significant” tree.
Carr reminded the council that they had discussed possibly spending that money on other things that could do more good, such as a drainfield or higher fence. “I hope we know the cost of each option” so we can look at spending city money in a larger context,” she said, adding a cost-benefit analysis should be done on the tree to see if it is worth $40,000.
Deets said the fence actually could be built 12-feet high instead of 6-feet, but that it could fail at the taller height. He also asked if the stormwater pond could be moved farther away from the park. And he said he found out it’s not too late to add indigenous art to one or both roundabouts.
Schneider said she’d like to see WSDOT help pay for some of the mitigating impacts.
Nassar said she’d like to see more mature trees and bushes planted on the cleared land to make it “feel more full.” She also said WSDOT wants land back that it had given the city. But rather than give it back she’d like to sell or exchange it to help pay for mitigation measures.
King said the Planning Commission will be asked to have a special meeting Sept. 2 to deal with the Wintergreen Townhomes project because of its tight deadline.
During public comments, attorney Hayes Gori said the Wintergreen developers are planning to sell 31 of their dwellings to the lowest-income buyers, even though the City Council did not approve their developer agreements last week. Legally, they are only required to sell about three at that rate. Because of the reduction, Gori said developers will lose about $50,000 for each one – a total of $1.4 million.
The developer also will donate another $310,000 to HRB and Kitsap Housing. And, despite what some councilmembers said last week, the housing will remain low-income “in perpetuity.” He said, “This is a once-in-a-generation opportunity for real quality affordable housing on Bainbridge Island.”
Later that night, the council was scheduled to look at a sales tax that would bring in about $450,000 a year for affordable housing. Gori said the Wintergreen project would bring in the same amount as four years of that tax.
Earlier during public comments, caller Sal DeRosalia encouraged the city to approve that tax. He said he, like hundreds of others on the island, needs affordable housing. He said many people have to leave the island because they can’t afford to live here anymore. He said he also sees people sleeping on benches in parks – and even across from City Hall in Town Square. “I see staff walk right by them,” he said.