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West Hill votes against annexing to Renton, ending talks of who will govern area

Signs dominated the thoroughfares of West Hill that this week voted not to annex to Renton. - Dean A. Radford/Renton Reporter
Signs dominated the thoroughfares of West Hill that this week voted not to annex to Renton.
— image credit: Dean A. Radford/Renton Reporter

After more than a decade of discussions, West Hill residents have made it clear they don’t want to annex to Renton.

A final vote against annexation ends the City of Renton’s discussions with King County about who will govern West Hill, according to Mayor Denis Law.

Annexation to Renton was failing by about 10 percent points after the initial release of votes in Tuesday’s general election; that percentage difference didn't change Wednesday or Thursday.

At the same time, West Hill residents were voting overwhelmingly to increase their property taxes to preserve fire services.

“A majority of West Hill residents that voted on the annexation issue have expressed their desire to remain part of unincorporated King County,” said Law in a statement issued Wednesday.

“This decision allows us to end discussions regarding governance for this area and focus our attention on serving Renton citizens,” he said.

In a statement Thursday, King County Executive Dow Constantine said the county "will continue to do its best" to provide services with the resources it has to West Hill and to White Center, which voted not to annex to Burien.

He pointed out "the mandate of the state Growth Management Act remains unchanged – that urban areas should be in cities, which are in a better position to provide urban-level services."

It's up to the residents of these two urban areas and their nearby cities to decide whether to attempt an annexation again, he said. "It is certainly in the interest of the cities to act before the sales tax relief provided by the state expires in 2015," he said.

Now, the county's Community Service Area staff will continue to provide support and access to unincorporated area residents and organizations, he said in the statement.

Tuesday night's 10 percent margin continued to hold after the results for Wednesday and Thursday were released. On Thursday, the vote was 45 percent for annexation to 55 percent against annexation.

Ballots from nearly 80 percent of the annexation area's 8,296 voters have been received as of Wednesday.

The roughly 14,000 residents of West Hill live in unincorporated King County, which has warned them that service levels will continue to drop because of cuts in the county’s budget and its vision of serving only rural areas.

West Hill is a potential annexation area to Renton; a divided Renton City Council had voted to place the annexation measure on the general election ballot.

“I think the community is a little smarter and sophisticated than folks gave us credit for,” said Paul Berry, who led the opposition to annexation.

He said those who voted no were “not seduced” by the “beautiful promises” from Renton that life would be better as part of the city. Where services would improve wasn’t that clear, he said.

And, residents feared the loss of their own fire department, which he called the “spiritual heart of the community.” He said annexation would reduce fire services; city officials disagreed with that contention.

Berry said he wouldn’t rule out another effort to annex in the future, but there would have to be “substantial changes” in the governance proposal. He pointed to the possibility of a regional fire service, similar to one that includes Kent and other South King County cities.

Policy makers and government officials in Renton need to learn to appreciate what the residents of West Hill really want and what they value, he said. Some people might want to raise chickens and some are  not “terribly interested” in increasing housing densities, he said.

“There was a sense that people in Renton viewed us as poor step-children,” he said.

Dian Ferguson, who has served as spokeswoman for the pro-annexation side, remained optimistic Wednesday morning, but if annexation is defeated “we will be highly disappointed.”

Annexation is the way to have the growth, economic development and the social services the community needs, she said, and serve the needs of West Hill’s young and old.

Some people are frightened of change, she said.

“Some people will need to experience the total deterioration of the area before they say, ‘I should have done something different’,” she said.

If there is another annexation effort, other proponents will have to lead it, she said, pointing out that the group has worked on annexation for more than 10 years.

“It has to be new energy,” she said.

Law said the City of Renton worked “unsuccessfully with King County staff for over several years in an effort to bridge the funding gaps that we would face by providing city-levels of services to the area with an inadequate tax base from the area.”

He pointed out the county recently stated it plans to continue to reduce services to unincorporated areas, especially in road maintenance and repairs, “which will have long-term impacts to this community.”

In terms of public safety, he said the city hopes “that West Hill residents will demand that the King County Sheriff’s Department meet the staffing promises required to meet the high-levels of crime in the area.”

Law said there are many “dedicated residents in the West Hill area committed to making their community a safe and vibrant place to live and conduct business.

“We feel this area has been neglected for many years and that it’s important that the county work with community leaders in finding ways to address their goals and reasonable expectations of county services,” he said.

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