The Tacoma Sun

LIGHT FOR ALL
 

Tacoma City Council Candidate Karen Smitherman Answers Tough Urban Questions From the Tacoma Sun

By Erik Bjornson

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Introduction:
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Below are the questions and responses sent to Karen Smitherman, candidate for Tacoma City Council District #1. This district is current represented by  councilmember Spiro Manthou who is retiring from the council.  Thus, this is an open position.
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The questions being asked to Tacoma City Council candidates this year from the Tacoma Sun are very specific and address such issues as the Winthrop Hotel, Parking Requirements, Tacoma Streetcars, and Felon Dumping Ground Issue
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Q I:
What education and experience do you have to qualify to be a member of the Tacoma City Council? What books have you read that you believe that would give you insights as to how to be an effective councilmember?

Answer: Tacoma’s West End has been my home for more than 37 years. My husband, Bill and I raised our two daughters here where they attended Pt. Defiance Elementary School, Truman Middle School and Wilson High School. I’ve always been very active in serving our community whether it’s been as a member of our local PTA, the Pt. Defiance Zoo Society, the Tacoma Art Museum, Tacoma Urban Network, or the Pierce County Juvenile Justice Coalition. I will focus on creating local jobs, improving public safety, promoting transparency in government, providing better transportation mobility, and protecting our environment.
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As a teacher and administrator for Tacoma Public Schools for 35 years, I’ve brought together business, labor, postsecondary institutions, organizations and agencies to solve problems and find solutions facing our children, youth and families throughout Tacoma. I received my undergraduate degree from the University of Washington in Sociology and Education and my Master’s degree from Pacific Lutheran University in Educational Administration and Principal Credentials. Where we are as a community requires a community conversation and collaborative approach to find solutions. How we define a problem will determine how we respond to it.
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We need to have a conversation to define the benchmarks for success, accountability, and transparency. Through this crucial conversation we can lay the foundation to restore faith in government. We change the dynamics of the conversation by listening and defining together what we will fund, rather than what we will cut. It is only through this framework of benchmarks that citizens have a right to know and accountability with clear, well-defined objectives and timelines that we can hold each other accountable and avoid the blame game that can end up costing taxpayers millions of dollars. Please visit my webpage at http://www.karensmitherman.com to find out more about my vision for Tacoma.
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The last three months, as part of the Community Awareness for Student Achievement Project, I’ve enjoyed facilitating a community book study focusing on the impact of poverty and race on student learning. A group of concerned citizens came together to read and have a conversation about how we can close the achievement gap. “Whatever It takes” by Paul Tough describes how Geoffrey Canada worked to establish the “Harlem Children’s Zone.” Our discussions on solutions to close the achievement gap begin the crucial conversation of how to ensure that all students succeed.
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Growth Management
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Q2:
Over the last 30 years, Pierce County has been known for suburban sprawl which has caused the loss of farmland, pollution, traffic congestion and disinvestment in Tacoma. During the last 10 years, Tacoma has grown less than 5000 residents while Spokane grew by 13,000 and Pierce County grew by 95,000. If you are elected, would you work to add more density to the City of Tacoma? How would your plan, if any, be different from what is in place now?
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Answer: It was 20 years and 1.9 million people ago (in total population) that Washington enacted the Growth Management Act. The idea in 1990 was to divert people into places that could accommodate their number while preserving open space, critical habitats, shorelines and farmlands. The Growth Management Act was supported t put the brakes suburban sprawl and channel growth into existing cities. However, all we have to do is drive around Pierce County and question if the GMA really is producing the results it was intended to make. South Hill, Yelm Fredrickson and DuPont are all situated on the fringe of urban growth areas and have seen far greater growth than expected. The Puget Sound Regional Council adopted VISION 2040 in April 2008. According to their documents, VISION 2040 establishes a common vision for the future.

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It consists of: an environmental framework; a regional growth strategy; policies to guide growth and development; actions to implement; and measure to track programs. I believe that all levels of government in the central Puget Sound’s four counties (King, Kitsap, Pierce, and Snohomish) will use VISION 2040 as a regional framework for making local decision.  Within the metropolitan and core cities like Tacoma, VISION 2040 supports concentrating population and employment growth in regionally designated growth centers. These centers serve as hubs for regional transportation, public services and amenities.

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With the shape of how the South Sound developed in the last 10 years, you have to question whether the GMA really is producing the intended results. As a city we must have a vision and the leadership to move Tacoma forward and the definitely means that we must have an action plan that will increase density in Tacoma. The Executive Council of Tacoma, along with City and Community leaders must come together and develop a strong vision that addresses the reality of where we want to go in these very difficult economic times.
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3) Pierce County Felon “Dumping Ground” Issues
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Q III:
As you know, Tacoma and Pierce County have a disproportionate number of released felons placed by the Department of Corrections as described in the Tacoma City Club report: 30 Years of DOC in Pierce County, Was It worth It? http://cityclubtacoma.org/images/uploads/DOC_Report_final1.pdf. Have you read this report? What specific steps would you take, if any, to reduce the number of felons being place in Tacoma and Pierce County?
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Answer: According to the City Club report released in February 2007, ”work release was originally conceived as a program of rehabilitation for offenders and a cost-effective alternative to incarceration, which provided important pre-release benefits to convicted felons.
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Over time, Pierce County’s level of participation in the program exceeded that of most other counties within the state, leading to higher rates of post-incarceration placement within the county. In addition, offenders from other counties serving time in Pierce County correctional institutions remained in Pierce County for community custody supervision by DOC. High numbers of post-incarceration offenders residing in the county result in higher crime and other negative costs.” Our own State Legislators Jeannie Darneille, Steve Conway and Steve Kirby introduced House Bill 1733 which obtains equitable distribution of work release centers and released felons around the state. This “fair-sharing” burden must be continually re-evaluated so that Tacoma and Pierce County only receives its fair share and has the commitment that DOC has the ability to supervise those who are released into our county. The Joyce family lost Paula when a convicted felon on “pre-release” and supposedly “under supervision” smashed his car into hers. This cannot happen to another family. The system must be “designed to achieve the results it achieves.”

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Restoration of Winthrop Hotel
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Q IV:
A great many Tacomans would like to see the Winthrop Hotel restored as Spokane has restored the Davenport Hotel. What is your position on this issue? What plan would you support, if any, to restore the Winthrop Hotel back into a hotel? What ideas do you have to make this goal of Tacomans a reality?
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Answer: The historic Winthrop Hotel is an architectural anchor of the north end of downtown Tacoma and its redevelopment has been identified as a priority by all three Tacoma Partnership teams lead by Tom Luce and Bruce Kendall(report to the City of Tacoma Economic Development Committee, August 31, 2010)  They stated in their report that the hotel currently houses 170 units of subsidized affordable housing, requires significant rehabilitative investment to reverse decades of neglect and is perceived by some community stakeholders to be the source of crime and other undesirable activity in this area of downtown.
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Redevelopment of the Winthrop Hotel and the adjacent streetscape will breathe new life into the Theater District, creating a new destination for visitors and incite further reinvestment in the north end of downtown. Relocation of the tenants will give them an opportunity to live in buildings that were designed for long-term residents; an improvement over their current situation.
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Redevelopment of the Winthrop Hotel requires three steps. (1) Address the affordable housing needs of the current residents, relocating them into more modern and appropriate housing. (2) Identify developers and a plan for redevelopment. (3) Identify financing for the redevelopment.
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Discussions with key constituencies and the City of Tacoma must continue so that a specific plan of action can be moved forward.
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Rebuilding Tacoma
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Q V:
Despite the progress made, Tacoma still has a large number of vacant lots, and empty and blighted buildings relative to other west coast cities. In fact at least two new surface level parking lots have been created downtown in the last couple of years (the Sauro site and the site where the Luzon building was). What role can you and the City of Tacoma take, if you are elected, to support the rebuilding of downtown Tacoma and Tacoma’s mixed use centers?

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Answer: Each year the Economic Development Board meets with more than 100 existing primary firms in Tacoma to address their workforce, financing, site, and regulatory needs. They also recruit new firms into Tacoma and VersaCold is a recent example. Primary firms make a product or service and export it out of the market, thereby bringing new dollars in and creating new jobs for our economy. As a member of the Tacoma City Council, I will be working with the EDB, Tacoma’s Executive Council and local Business Districts to implement high level corporate visits (recruitment trips); more deeply leverage broker relationships, as well as, partner with building owners and developers to market the area. The work of the EDB can be enhanced with the participation of the Tacoma City Council members and other public leaders. The work of the Tacoma Partnership Team, the Economic Development board and the City of Tacoma should continue this collaboration in identifying top economic development project priorities for downtown.
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Building Walkable Neighborhood Centers and Downtown
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Q VI:
Cities such as Portland, Seattle, Bellingham, and San Francisco have removed their off-street parking requirements to allow parking to be built based on market demand. This also has the benefit of reducing sprawl, reducing the cost of housing, reducing pollution and allowing the construction of walkable neighborhoods. Do you support removing the off-street parking requirement in downtown Tacoma and in Tacoma’s mixed use centers?
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Answer: Yes. By reducing the off-street parking requirements, the City of Tacoma would promote higher density in our downtown core and pedestrian friendly mixed-use centers. It would also encourage alternate transportation such as streetcars, busses, light rail and bicycles. Continued collaboration between the City of Tacoma, Pierce Transit and Sound Transit will make the reduction of off-street parking sustainable and will encourage more density in our downtown core while developing “walkable” neighborhoods. Removing the off-street parking requirement will help Tacoma move away from strip-mall development and become the livable community that we all want.
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Restoring Tacoma’s Streetcars
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Q VII:
Many Tacomans support restoring Tacoma’s streetcar system. Gas prices are now at record levels? Do you support restoring the streetcar network in Tacoma? What steps would be needed to be taken to make this happen?

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Answer: I strongly support the development of a streetcar system. The first step is to develop a plan where the streetcars will run; then highlight the most cost effective routes to neighborhood business district, parks and the downtown core. Secondly, there needs to be enough public support and input. This can be done through our Neighborhood Councils, Rotary meetings and other community connections.
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Pollution Issues in Tacoma
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Q VIII: The City of Tacoma is currently failing the pollution criteria set by the State of Washington. If elected, what specific measures would you take, if any, to reduce pollution in the city limits of Tacoma?

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Answer: The Office of Sustainability, in partnership with the Sustainable Tacoma Commission, has been monitoring greenhouse gas reductions and sustainability efforts made by the City of Tacoma and the community. We all must become stewards of our environment. As a teacher in Tacoma, I’ve taken my 5th graders to the Tacoma Nature Center where they learned about wetlands and community conservations efforts. Our science teacher, Mr. Menke, has been working with our students to teach them about recycling, composting and establishing their own urban garden at Stanley Elementary School. As a steward of my community, I am working to change my own carbon footprint by reducing, reusing and recycling.

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I strongly support Tacoma’s Climate Action Plan. “Tacoma’s Climate Action Plan clearly lays out what we can do together to ensure a healthier more livable environment for our children and grandchildren. The City must invest in and build upon its current infrastructure. As the region grows in the coming decades, expanding populations should be absorbed in areas where infrastructure already exists, rather than duplicating municipal services. This is not only a wiser use of tax dollars, but also brings the critical mass together to afford the amenities communities desire to be more livable, such as transportation options, better streets and sidewalks for all types of mobility, shopping and entertainment options.

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Land use planning must drive investment in the downtown core and existing multiple-use centers. Livable, walkable, compact cities are vital to curbing climate change because it fundamentally reduces driving distances for our most common activities, such as going to work, shopping and entertaining our families.”(Green Ribbon Task Force Co-chairs Ryan Mello and Joanne Buselmeier). Please visit the City of Tacoma’s website to learn more about what we can do together to provide a healthier, more sustainable Tacoma for everyone. www.cityoftacoma.org
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Crime Reduction Proposal by City Manager Eric Anderson
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Q IX: A few years ago, City Manager Eric Anderson set a goal to reduce crime in Tacoma by 50 percent in 14 months. Unfortunately, the goal was not reached. What can be done in your opinion to reduce crime in Tacoma?
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Answer: The original challenge set by the City Manager was to reduce blight and crime and make our community safe and clean. The Safe and Clean Initiative began in 2008, it brought together city employees and neighborhood citizens to mobilize around projects that they identified were their top priorities. They identified drug and gang houses and boarded up houses for code violations. The city amended codes to make it easier to force landlords and businesses to clean up their properties. Some of the surplus properties were identified and turned into community gardens. Neighbors are educated on how to improve their home landscape to ensure safety. The Tacoma Police Department worked on targeting car prowls, vehicle theft and junk autos. Together, neighbors working with neighbors. Safe and Clean target crimes dropped 20 percent from 2007 to 2010. Neighborhood cleanups have packed off more than 1,000 tons of debris. Allyson Griffith of Community Based Services is impressed with inspector’s new ability to send postcard warnings from their cars with about 70 percent of recipients fixing problems before they hit the expensive formal system. (Kathleen Merryman,TNT).

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The Safe and Clean Initiative encourages neighbors to talk with one another, report crime and blight, join a community group such as your local Neighborhood Council, make your own home safe and clean. You can learn more about City services from their website at www.cityoftacoma.org.  In order to prevent crime and keep our community safe, all key municipal entities must play a role in cutting crime and violence. Schools, businesses, city government and social services must all work together. Leadership; working together; identifying problems and then attacking them; measuring results; doing business differently; being tough on crime and equally tough on the causes of crime produce positive results.
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Tacoma’s Billboard Ordinances.
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Q X: Tacoma’s Central Neighborhood Council has posted dozens of articles on the electronic billboard issue located at: http://cnc-tacoma.com/proposed-electronic-billboards. What percentage of these articles do you estimate that you have read?

Answer: After listening to members of the North end Neighborhood Council discuss the issue of electronic billboards; I decided to attend the community meeting March 12th at the Evergreen State College Tacoma campus. I then spent time reading various articles posted by the Central Neighborhood Council and read through oral and written statements made by citizens at the Planning Commission meeting March 16th.  I also listened to remarks of City Counsel Shelley Kerslake and the Planning Commission’s meeting on April 6th.
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Q XI: What is your position in relation to the settlement proposal that the Tacoma City Council is considering regarding electronic billboards? Do you support it? If you were elected to the Tacoma City Council, would you authorize the City of Tacoma to expend financial resources to defend the Tacoma’s current 1997 billboard law?

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Answer: Although there are a few people who support electronic billboards and a few non-profits who have received funding from Clear Channel to post advertisements on their billboards who appreciate Clear Channel’s civic involvement, 95% of those citizens who testified are strongly opposed to the Proposed Settlement Agreement (PSA) with Clear Channel. Currently, the Planning Commission is review those comments and will be making recommendations to the Tacoma City Council. Clear Channel plans to build ten jumbo digital billboards, I believe, the code is in direct conflict with the existing Comprehensive Plan land use policies for mixed-use districts.

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The City of Tacoma agreed to accept as many as 38 digital electronic billboards in exchange for Clear Channel removing 253 existing traditional and mostly smaller billboards scattered around the city. The message is clear. No digital billboards. I clearly understand the financial implications fighting a major corporation like Clear Channel. Clear Channel is the big guy and the city is the little guy. The fight could cost the city millions of dollars. The City Council needs to stand up and defend Tacoma’s current 1997 billboard laws.
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Tacoma’s B&O Tax

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Q XII: Many cities near the City of Tacoma such as Fife and University Place as well as unincorporated Pierce County do not have a B&O tax which many people allege has caused businesses to move out of the City of Tacoma. Last year, the City of Tacoma raised the B&O threshold to $250,000. Hence, businesses in Tacoma grossing less than $250,000 pay no B&O tax. If elected, would you support further raising the B&O tax threshold as a number of current councilmember’s have suggested? If so, how far would you raise it?
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Answer: The move to raise the annual taxable gross income threshold for small-business owners from $75,000 to $250,000 will benefit approximately 4,900 business owners who fall below that threshold. However, the loss of revenue is projected to be $2.8 million during the 2011-2012 biennium. It now becomes a matter of what do we want to fund. The City collected approximately $40 million in 2009. The revenue reduction makes Tacoma’s B&O tax threshold more appealing than thresholds in Seattle ($80,000), Olympia ($20,000) and Bellevue ($125,000).
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The B&O tax is used to pay for a variety of services such as street repairs, libraries, and emergency services such as police departments and fire departments. To eliminate completely would mean a loss of $80 million into the biennium, general fund. This means less services, less police and fire protection. Raising the B&O threshold makes good business sense in these difficult economic times. It’s a bold step and demonstrates that Tacoma is a great place to do business and a great place to start a business.  I would support a raise in the B&O threshold only if we make the change revenue neutral by streamlining services and identifying other potential revenue sources.
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For more information see Karen Smitherman Facebook Page

published May 5th, 2011

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