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Larson and Harrelson eye Snoqualmie mayor's spot this fall - Matt Larson
SNOQUALMIE - Matt Larson is no newcomer to Snoqualmie politics. Alongside Greg Fullington, Larson is the longest-standing member of the City Council and has sat on numerous city commissions and boards.
He was the top candidate in last month's mayoral race primary, receiving slightly more than half (50.8 percent) of the ballots cast. Following is some background on him and some of his thoughts on major issues facing the city in coming years.
Larson came to the city with his wife and children in 1999 and was the 114th family to move to the city's nascent Snoqualmie Ridge neighborhood. While he and his wife had never planned to move so far east of the Seattle area, they were drawn by the city's approach to new development, which had a neotraditional atmosphere that turned some existing suburban design precepts around (e.g. garages were located in alleys behind homes, parking lots were behind businesses, etc.).
Not long after moving in, Larson heard about some planned parks in the city not being built. When he went to a city meeting to learn what was going on, he was surprised to find he was the only one from his neighborhood in attendance.
Larson served on the parks board and the Planning Commission, a commission he later chaired. In 2001, he won his seat on the City Council in a watershed election that took the then five-member council with no member from the Ridge to a majority of three Ridge council members. For the past two years, he has been mayor pro tem.
He and his wife have four children.
City financial situation
Many of Larson's points stem from his views on the city's finances, which he said will need to be restructured if the city wants to avoid a serious financial problem in the next five years.
"We are at a crossroads. We need to professionalize and take this organization into the future," Larson said. "We need to realize we cannot do business as usual."
Larson said the city budget is now too reliant on its one-time revenues (36 percent of the 2005 budget), including money it gets from new home construction. Once those one-time revenues start to taper off, a gap in the city's budget will grow as the costs continue to increase. Larson said a financial study done for the city estimated that by 2010, there will be a $2-million gap between what the city is bringing in and what it needs to pay for recurring expenses.
Larson said this loss is due to a "perfect storm" of events, including the completed build out of Snoqualmie Ridge Phase II that will happen in 2009-2010Phase II that will happen in 2009-2010, and the Tim Eyman initiative that limits property tax increases to 1 percent without voter approval.
"Any politician that goes out these days and says adamantly they are against a tax increase is either a liar or a fool," Larson said. "In the post-Eyman world, it is not if you ask for a tax increase, but when."
Larson said there is no simple solution to the budget problem, although higher taxes is one way to garner revenue. He has also favored another look at the city's comprehensive plan to see what growth targets the city has committed to for its departments. If some of those numbers could be slowed down, the city could avoid the two drastic steps of cutting staff and jacking up taxes to keep up with the cost of living raises for city staff. The two biggest departments in the city are police and fire, which, when combined, make up more than half the city's general budget, and Larson's view on keeping those services has drawn the ire of some residents.
Police and fire
Once it came to light earlier this year that he and council member Greg Fullington had approached the King County Sheriff's Office about discussions regarding future service, it sparked several contentious council meetings.
Larson said that contention is unfounded since he was merely talking with the county about the costs of service, a move necessary when considering the city's budget. He said he would like a local police department, but stressed he will look for "function rather than form" when it comes to who provides that services.
"To me, form follows function," Larson said. "The function of a police department is to provide for the safety and health of a community, whatever form it takes."
Taking a critical look at staffing levels for the city's police department could mean big savings without compromising the health and safety of the city, Larson said. The city is presently planning on having 1.6 officers per 1,000 residents. If that number were brought down to 1.3, the difference in 2010 (when the city is expected to have 10,000 residents) would be three full-time officers. At a cost of $150,000 per officer, such a change could mean a savings of $450,000. Similar savings might also be found if the city looked to train and retain more volunteers in its fire department, Larson said.
Larson was a supporter of Snoqualmie's effort in 2003 to build a community center in the Snoqualmie Ridge neighborhood. The land for the center was donated by Ridge developer Quadrant, but a fund-raising drive fell short of its goals and the capital costs of the community center, which topped $9 million, went before voters in a bond. Projections that the city couldn't sustain the proposed center didn't help and the bond failed.
The lesson to be learned from that experience, Larson said, is to get more public input on what exactly the city wants, and to get clearer numbers on what the city can afford.
"If it [the community center] gets shot down a second time, it is dead for another five or 10 years," he said.
He said both the capital costs and operation of a community center would have to be funded outside of the city's general budget. The city should formulate a basic community center plan and a high-end community center plan with a pool, and then what it would cost to build and run both. The city should pick one of those plans and put two bonds, one for capital funds and one for operation funds, before voters.
A daunting task, but Larson said the city has more resources and a better idea of its financial future than it did in 2003. With the second phase of the Snoqualmie Ridge development now a guarantee, he said the city can stop speculating about the benefits of an additional tax base and plan for them.
Larson also suggested working with the Si View Metropolitan Park District to see what kind of collaborative efforts it and the city could develop. Si View has a pool that is patroned by many Snoqualmie residents, but the center does not receive tax revenue from taxpayers outside its North Bend parks district boundaries. Larson said working with Si View may yield a premier facility that could serve both communities as opposed to each trying to build a basic one. There could also be some kind of partnership developed with other private bodies such as the Church on the Ridge, which has plans to expand in the city.
To stimulate Snoqualmie's economy, Larson said the city should continue its attempts to attract certain businesses to the area. One element is a commitment to the Prosperity Partnership, a coalition of Puget Sound area counties and cities working to bring high-end businesses (e.g. biotech, software, etc.) to the area. There is plenty of room for such businesses in the city's business park, and Larson hopes to promote that asset to other companies looking to locate or relocate.
More recent city efforts should also be followed through on, Larson said. Two city committees, an economic development committee and hotel/motel tax advisory committee (that spends money promoting tourism), are in their infancy and Larson said the city should direct more resources to each.
Larson would also like to see what recommendations are ultimately handed down from Destination Development, a community development advisor that has been working with the city this year on ways to accentuate the city's assets to outside businesses and tourism.
A kind of wild card for city