With three new councilmembers at the Renton Council Retreat, much of the council conversation was around growing needs in the community that cannot be held off any longer, while financial forecasts showed revenue has to increase in the next budget cycle to keep existing programs afloat.
Administrative Services Administrator Jan Hawn told council at the retreat, which took place Feb. 28 and Feb. 29 at Maplewood Golf Course, that finance staff anticipate revenues exceeding expenditures this year, and that the city needs to start having “serious conversations” about financial stability, including increases revenues. The possibilities discussed, which will be further explored during the 2021-2022 biennial budget process, included small increases to the Business and Operation Tax (B&O tax) and removing or increasing the $4.7 million B&O tax cap for large companies in Renton, raising utility taxes or adding a solid waste tax and property taxes.
“In this economy, everyone has to chip in,” Council President Ruth Pérez said during the discussion.
Then various administrators discussed the opportunities and challenges facing their departments. Community and Economic Development (CED) Administrator Chip Vincent discussed a lack of available land for large redevelopment and unmotivated property owners as challenges, and that the department would benefit from its own capital budget to help support development— right now CED support things like private facade improvements through block grants.
During the CED discussion council talked about how to improve code compliance and the resources it would require of staff. They also discussed affordable housing, and the idea of an affordable housing levy for Renton in the near future related to pending state legislation House Bill 1406. It was also mentioned by staff that Renton is the only of 10 cities involved with the South King Housing and Homelessness Partners (SKHHP) coalition that has yet to pass a council ordinance designating a portion of that pending state funding to SKHHP.
The conversation on capital project funding continued with transportation. Public Works Department struggles to fund street maintenance and its transportation improvement projects. Staff told council at the retreat that at least an additional $2 million needed to be invested in street overlay each year. Pérez mentioned how retiring Public Works Administrator Gregg Zimmerman has been telling the council this for many years, and that in honor of him, “it’s time to make a decision.”
Council also established during the transportation discussion that council needs to establish exactly what Renton wants from Sound Transit, given Councilmember Ed Prince’s recent appointment to the Sound Transit Board of Directors and the future transit center.
The Community Services Committee has been backlogged on maintenance for city parks and facilities over the years, like Public Works, save for receiving a council-votes bond in late 2018 that supported major park improvements projects to help fill the gap. Now the department is looking at funding needs for Human Services division and continuing to update and manage aging city facilities. Compared to the average of the 14 cities that provide human services and homelessness resources, Renton’s funding is only about half of that ($5.71 per capita compared to the average $11.56).
The council also discussed the to-be relocated severe weather shelter and feeding program. Pérez said after asking for state funding from legislators this session for the new site, it was clear that they will need to provide more than these programs in the future. She said the location will also need to provide services that get people out of homelessness.
A few expressed concerns about providing resources that would draw people who are homeless to the city— they would need significant funding and staffing to handle more than the about 50 folks considered to be Renton’s chronically homeless. Both Councilmember Kim-Khánh Van and Councilmember Angelina Benedetti said that even if other resources become a part of the new location, there would still be a need for a feeding program and barrier-free weather shelter. Van pointed out that regional issues like this do not have borders, and it’s the government’s duty to support those in need, humanely. Benedetti said removing a feeding program would also likely increase emergency response needs for those people.
“As a city, we are going to suffer if we don’t (provide these services). The problem doesn’t go away,” Benedetti said at the second day of the council retreat.
When the Community Services Department conversation moved to neighborhood programs, council expressed a desire to be more involved in neighborhood gatherings and meeting the community where they are.
“City hall can become an ivory tower,” Councilmember Ed Prince said at the retreat. “We should not be expecting them to come to us, but we come to them.”
One city department that continues to work on community outreach is the Renton Police Department, as Police Chief Ed VanValey shared in a presentation at the council retreat. The department is facing staffing and resource challenges, but is doing better with recruitment than some neighboring jurisdictions. However, an increase in violent encounters has made an impact, VanValey said, including three officers leaving last year to pursue careers outside policing and an increase in officer injuries. The department also had three officer shootings last year.
While crime has gone down and police presence in downtown Renton has improved perception of safety, council discussed the need to continue resident and business outreach with officers.
The council also discussed equity and inclusion, sustainability and council policies at the retreat, which was two full days of discussion. Councilmember Valerie O’Halloran suggested, when discussing sustainability, the city revisit and update the 2011 Creating a Clean Economy Plan. The council also considered the work of the Renton African American Pastor’s Group and the Mayor’s Inclusion Task Force and what the next steps for those programs could be.