Major projects, signs of economic growth, and citizens and residents stepping up to make Snoqualmie work better. They've all got Mayor Matt Larson on a much more optimistic beat in 2013, compared with one year ago.
Giving his annual 'State of the City' talk to the Snoqualmie Valley Chamber of Commerce at their packed January 18 luncheon at TPC Snoqualmie Ridge, the Snoqualmie leader was upbeat, sharing signs of the times like the new dual police force, Tokul roundabout, new parks and street repairs.
"The state of the city remains vibrant and strong," Larson said.
Regional and national changes, like an increase in energy supply, the easing up of 'poisoned assets' in the mortgage and foreclosure sector, and the state going over the hump of 25,000 job cuts last year, have him hopeful. Those factors were highlighted at the recent economic forecast conference that the mayor, City Administrator Bob Larson and Finance Director Rob Orton attended, put on by the Economic Development Council of King County and Seattle.
Close to home, housing starts are beginning to come back in Snoqualmie. They're not close to pre-recession levels, but the city added a resident a day in 2012. City population hit 11,320 last spring.
Municipal governments' budgets are divided into two major sections: The general fund and the enterprise fund. The general fund pays for all of the fundamental services of the city, such as police, firefighters, city staff, and all of the facilities, buildings and vehicles that a city needs. Enterprise funds come from fees charged for city services like water and sewer.
"By law, we have to keep those buckets separate from each other," Larson told chamber members
City councils can adjust fees on the enterprise side, but boosting general fund revenues, which mainly come from taxes, is harder. In Washington, where property tax increases are capped by law at 1 percent, cities like Snoqualmie are challenged by operations cost that rise roughly 3 percent a year, says Larson.
"Cities, like school districts, will have to get into a normal vote, going out for a lid lift every five or six years," he says.
He was "relieved and pleased" to see residents support the city's 24 cent levy lid lift last fall.
That levy, which will raise about $400,000—roughly $100 annually per household—will be split into several areas. Half of it pays for two new positions: a new city firefighter and a joint parks/public works employee.
With the fiscal cliff still looming on a national level, Larson said he was hesitant about spending it all on employees who may end up having to be let go.
The other half of the levy funds go to capital projects that Larson says the city needs to get on top of: sign fixes, new carpet and vehicles, and clean-up of potentially dangerous materials in the Snoqualmie Police Station's basement firing range.
"The HVAC system needs to be scrubbed. While a few of you might think there's poetic justice in the officers getting a taste of their own lead, it's something the state and federal governments discourage," he quipped.
With 64 miles of water pipe, 37 miles of sewer, and enough sidewalk to line both sides of I-90 into Seattle, Snoqualmie has plenty of infrastructure to take care of. And in today's economic climate, the city has to work harder with its own resources to pay for infrastructure projects like the downtown improvements or the new Tokul Road roundabout.
"We started moving into a new normal where the message from the state and federal governments was 'you're not going to be able to rely on grants,'" Larson said. "We're saying, 'How do we stay on top of this stuff?….We had to look at raising fees, raising taxes."
Besides taking its annual 1 percent property tax increase, the city put in place a Transportation Benefit District, in 2010, with a $20 car tab fee; increased taxes on utilities like sewer and cable television, and finally added a transport fee for any ambulance trips to the hospital. Ambulance fees, Larson said, will allow the city to add at least one other additional firefighter.
The efforts that the city has made to fit into the 'new normal' have helped when it seeks grants from federal and state agencies.
The mayor told the chamber that these efforts have given the city the edge at the table of committees like the Puget Sound Regional Council's Region Project Advisory Committee. Snoqualmie won 6.3 million in state and federal grants last year.
"This is what gives me the confidence to say we're moving forward in 2013," Larson said.
The biggest grant was $3 million from the Transportation Improvement Board for the Tokul roundabout, which would in turn allow the Salish Lodge and Spa to expand. Larson anticipates that bringing upwards of half a million of ongoing new revenue to the city.
"It's a very important project and a huge piece of news," the mayor said. Construction could begin as early as March. Larson added that the city is giving the Snoqualmie Tribe time to come up to speed on the details of the roundabout; the tribe is against development at the Falls.
"Embedded in the project is the full cost of having an archaeological representative on site during construction," the mayor said. "We will take their concerns very seriously."
The next phase of downtown infrastructure projects is coming. Two years ago, the city completed phase one, which improved the north side of Railroad Avenue with new lights, sidewalks and other fixes. Now, on the south side, new parking, a boardwalk, sidewalks and traffic-calming designs are coming. This project is half funded.
Also downtown, fixes to dilapidated Falls Avenue, Beta and Gamma streets are fully funded.
"This infrastructure has completely failed," Larson said. "This is a complete rebuild." Bids came in a few weeks ago, and city staff were thrilled to see them as much as $600,000 below the engineer's estimate.
At Carmichael Park and Jenne Hansen Park, grant or developer-back projects are in the works to add new playfields. "Keep an eye on this one," he said of Hansen Park, where the city has entered into a partnership to covert fields to turf, saving in long-term costs.
Snoqualmie's police force saw big changes in 2012, with more to come. After 23 years at the helm, Chief Jim Schaffer retired in June. New Chief Steve McCulley took the reins, adding Nick Almquist as captain.
Snoqualmie won the contract for North Bend police work last September. So, in March of 2014, Snoqualmie assumes law enforcement duties for the entire Upper Valley. The city will hire at least six officers.
Larson described the benefits he sees to the change, which includes economies of scale, more opportunities for professional development and advancement, a higher level of back-up, and the chance to add an investigator and have better levels of service without increasing costs.
"With the same agency… we'll be able to have a common intelligence about what's going on in the Valley," Larson said. "We think a fundamentally stronger relationship between the two cities is a good benefit."
Next fall, Larson related, the trail and lower park at Snoqualmie Falls will be completed as Puget Sound Energy completes its relicensing and retrofitting at the power site. PSE's new Mount Si substation, located just south of the Snoqualmie Ridge Business Park, is also substantially completed, and should make for more electrical stability in the Valley's winter storms.
Among awards, Larson highlighted the Snoqualmie Community Center and Y's pick in November for “Community Impact of the Year” by the NAIOP Commercial Real Estate Development Association's Washington Chapter. The Y beat out serious contenders like the Chihuly Garden and Glass space at Seattle Center, the LeMay American Car Museum in Tacoma and the new science wing of the Bertschi School in Seattle.
In December, the city's vehicle fleet got a three-star rating from Western Washington Clean Cities for strong fleet management practices and investing in alternative fuels.
On Snoqualmie Ridge, incoming employers like Motion Water Sports, Spacelabs Healthcare and the King County Department of Permitting and Environmental Review have collectively added a 600-person workforce.
"That's a substantial customer base that you should all be going after," Larson said. "It's been a real sea change."
Still to come are the new Chase Bank, at the Ridge business park, and the new Snoqualmie Valley Hospital, which will be the topic of February's chamber luncheon.
The mayor referenced the Imagine Housing project on the Ridge, off Jacobia Street. Their proposal is for about 160 units, for residents earning 60 precent of median income in King County.
"That's a product that's very much in need," Larson said.
Imagine has called a community meeting on its latest proposal, 7 p.m. Wednesday, Jan. 23, at the Snoqualmie Y.
Quizzed by North Ben Mayor Ken Hearing on whether he intends to seek another term, Larson answered, "I'll be announcing my decision on that at the end of February."