The Tacoma Sun

LIGHT FOR ALL
 

Tacoma City Council Candidate Joe Atkinson Answers Tough Urban Questions From the Tacoma Sun

By Erik Bjornson

Introduction:
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Below are the questions and responses sent to Realtor Joe Atkinson, 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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Atkinson is running against Karen Smitherman and Anders Ibsen.

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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 Issues.

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?
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I graduated from Tacoma Community College and earned my bachelors degree in political science from the University of Washington Tacoma while working full time at a Tacoma small business.  I am no stranger to sacrifice and hard work.  I currently work as a legislative aide to State Representative (& former Mayor of Milton) Katrina Asay.  I am the elected Secretary of Ruston Point Defiance Business District (served for three years), am a licensed surety (bail) agent, and hold a real estate license.  My wife and I own two homes in Tacoma (one is 116 years old!) and a small business in Ruston. In the past I have worked as and aircraft fueler and member of the International Aerospace & Machinist Union. What stands out is my tireless work ethic and high level of practical, real world experience.
My wife and I are dedicated servants trying to make time for work, family, business, and community.  We are very hard workers, experts at budgeting, and are driven to empower our community and neighborhoods.  We are also dedicated parents who love spending our free time with our two-year-old son Alexander.
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Through my wide range of experience I have built up a compassion for people, and enjoy helping others empower themselves to solve complex problems.  I have a clear vision, and a drive to enact positive change.  I am looking forward to growing this vision by listening to YOU and empowering our communities.
Please see my website at www.friendsofjoeatkinson.com, and feel free to ‘like’ and follow my facebook page Don’t Forget to ‘Like’ My Facebook Page! (Click This Link) if you would like to follow the happenings of our campaign.
The quintessential political book that comes to mind is the ancient 6th century Chinese work of Art; “Tao Te Ching”, a philosophical masterpiece themed on political guidance with limitless interpretations.  This book teaches humility, simplicity, and practicality, and should be read by all seeking any form of public office.  Another book that has touched my life is Booker T Washington’s “Up from Slavery”.  I personally relate to this book as a lesson of how far a person can come through hard work and ability in the face of great challenges.  I also love the philosophical works of Hobbes Locke & Rousseau, but especially love Hobbes’ “Leviathan” and Locke’s “Second Treatise of Government”.  My most recent book was Homer’s first epic “The Iliad” about the ancient Trojan Wars.
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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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When considering the goals of the Growth Management Act, it is apparent that we are failing, and the proof is in the census numbers.  We must start with the basic premise that the underlying success of the Growth Management Act is dependant on making cities such as Tacoma a desirable (and affordable) place to live. Such Urban environments are best equipped to provide the infrastructure and services best needed to handle a large and diverse population base.  The more we can do as a city to encourage growth and affordable housing within our downtown core, the more competitive we will be.
Inside the City of Tacoma, such things as off-street parking requirements (and surface level lots and garages) have been a detriment to concentrated residential & business urban growth in the downtown core, which is the primary method of developing and revitalizing Tacoma without costing the city exorbitant amounts of capital.  Tacoma cannot achieve the levels of growth needed without high levels of quality, affordable housing right in our downtown core.  That must come first, before public transit, and before booming business.  It is unfortunate that the recent development boom has left us with expensive condos with high HOA dues, large empty parking lots, and empty units relatively isolated from downtown businesses and services.  I favor higher density, incentives to build taller, and a removal of off street parking requirements in certain density areas.  This would create more livable walkable communities in accordance with the GMA.  To address the long standing issue of poor Downtown Tacoma parking, we need to look towards multilevel underground parking alternatives rather than surface level lots.
Another detriment to downtown Tacoma is the lack of an accessible central park recreational area and working waterfront. Such a common area would promote an increase in pedestrian traffic, and fuel business development in the city.  An example to emulate is Ruston Way, which is detached from the downtown core, and too far away to have a direct impact on downtown.  Restaurants on Ruston Way are booming, and people flock to the area by the hundreds, or even thousands on nice days.  Facilitating such a park in our downtown core would create a much needed common space, and would be a much better investment than a between building parking lot.  Refurbishing the railroad track through UW Tacoma is a good idea, but the location is not ideal.  Having a park or communal shopping area in a more centralized location would create a real need for public transit, which is a primary goal of the Growth Management Act.  I am willing to hear all ideas. Tacoma has failed to expand the quality affordable downtown housing that attracts young investor, artists, and professionals.
In the future I would love to see the light rail expand to Point Ruston and even 6th Ave, but right now we don’t have the ridership to support such a large expenditure at the expense of crumbling sewers and roads.
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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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The disproportionate release of felons into our communities has been a long-term detriment to our neighborhoods and local economy.  I would support legislation that improves on the ‘fair share’ provision, meaning that we should ‘only’ take in offenders who resided in Pierce County when they committed their crimes.  It is not fair that we relocate offenders from other areas into Pierce County and Tacoma in particular.  Taking the burden from other counties (and cities) may have short term economic gains in DOC services, but the long term monetary and societal costs far outweigh any benefits.  This is an issue of safety and fairness, and is key to the revitalization of Downtown Tacoma where a high proportion of drug and sex offenders reside.
Finding a remedy to this issue is one of my top priorities.  I will work with Pierce County legislators relentlessly year after year until we improve on recent legislation, and move away from our current disposition.
I will also support programs that connect with our young people to break the cycle of crime right here at home, and support investing in after school activities that target teenagers.  We must address the underlying societal problems and work towards the future by investing in our future leaders BEFORE they fall through the cracks.  A little investment now will go a long way later in ensuring safe communities, productive citizens, and a healthy economy.
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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?
I would love to see the Winthrop Hotel restored and converted back into to a hotel.  The benefit to our downtown economy would be substantial, and the need for hotel space in a key area would be partially alleviated.  However, I see no easy solutions to this ongoing issue and I’m afraid the poor economy will delay this dream for years.
Significant challenges are prominent, and it is unclear as to where the hundreds of low income residents would or could be relocated to.  That needs to be addressed first, though I am confident a fair solution can be found.
The biggest challenge is economic feasibility and the high cost of restoration in the midst of this terrible economic recession.  Lending practices are stringent, and money is not readily available.  It is important that city officials work with the owner to locate a reliable funding source to facilitate restoration, be it loans or grants.  My preference would be to work with our federal officials and representatives to locate and win federal funding in the future.  Currently this project serves as an anchor of unrealized potential.
I simply find the recession based delay unfortunate, and would love to see such a restoration underway sooner rather than later.  I am willing to listen to ideas, and will do all I can to work with stakeholders & get restoration underway as soon as possible.
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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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The development of surface level parking lots Downtown Tacoma is antithetical to the goals of the Grown Management Act.  I will not support surface level parking lots in our downtown core period, which takes us a step backwards in our goals of dense development, public transportation, and a livable, walkable downtown core.  Rather than focusing on street level parking I would promote businesses at street level and encourage parking above or below.  I would also encourage high density development coupled with adequate underground parking.
In moving towards this direction we must look at positive examples and emulate cities such as Portland and learn from their lessons. Tacoma has great potential, and we need to research proven methods of sustainability and growth.  In the future this will involve saving historical monuments when possible and sadly clearing the way for development when restoration is not an economically feasible option.
I will stick to my point in saying that strong economic development cannot occur until we achieve a healthy level of growth and density coupled with safety and a high quality of life.  The primary way to move towards a dense downtown core is to promote affordable housing.  Affordable housing is just one aspect of desirability, where other factors include safety, image, and fair fees & taxes.  Affordable housing is also tied to affordable utilities as well as good businesses & services close by.  These factors are all key to smart development, of which the foundation of quality of life and environmental sustainability.  These are all long term goals than encompass multifaceted solutions, and while the council is on the right track on many issues, we can do much better.
Lastly, encouraging private development is the road to putting Tacoma on the right track.  I am willing to discuss priorities and thoughts on best how to do this so we avoid the mistakes of the past and retain quality employers that provide good jobs and benefits.  I would also LOVE to see the North Park Plaza Garage razed.
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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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In downtown, Yes.  Again, promoting surface level parking in urban areas is contrary to the goals and ideals behind the Growth Management Act, and harms the image and viability of our downtown core.  We need to take a hard look at the cities above and do what we can to promote business, affordable housing, and underground parking in our urban core.  This can be done through development incentives, and must be done in collaboration with all stakeholders including builders, labor groups, businesses, residents, environmentalists, and the city.  I am willing to listen to anyone with ideas on how to improve our city and spur sustainable development, and am interested in bringing us all together towards common goals and ideals.  The potential is right here!
In other mixed use areas, the city needs to work with communities and develop regulations that work best for each particular area. Tacoma is blessed with diversity, and Proctor may in fact have far different needs than Stadium or 6th Ave.  We need to give more power to communities to have a say in future development, and move further away from rigid rules that may inhibit local vision and ingenuity.
My vision is to attract private developers & jobs by promoting smart regulations that encourage sustainable development.  We have wasted our most recent opportunity, and must now look towards the future.
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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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I am a huge proponent of modern public transportation systems, but density and development must come first in my opinion to facilitate a clear need.  I am willing to have this ‘chicken or egg’ discussion with anybody.  Without density we do not have the foundation to sustain the costs of these services.  To invest exorbitant amounts of capital in a street car system while our streets are crumbling is not a viable solution.  The only solution is to incorporate a streetcar assessment in with road repair and clearly assess costs by quickly developing a clear, transparent plan.  I have had many discussions on front porches about this issue.
The other alternative is to ask the people to pay more in taxes, but those same taxes may put us at a further disadvantage.  If a tax measure is brought before the people, it must be coupled with efficiencies, directly allocated, and non-permanent.  We cannot afford another mistake like that of the Pierce Transit Board, who through short-sighted leadership asked voters to raise the transit tax to the ceiling while seeking limited efficiencies.  They have failed bus riders across the county, and refuse to bring a more reasonable tax package back to the table.
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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?
The best way to combat pollution is to utilize technology (such as electric cars and energy efficiency), promote urban growth, and allocate funds where they will have the greatest impact.  We live in an area of suburban sprawl where people are driving further to work and recreation.  If we cannot reverse this trend, our environmental goals will move farther out of reach.
We need to look past simple short-term costly measures and towards the future of long term sustainability.  Promoting urban growth will increase environmental challenges, but I am looking forward to that challenge with the understanding that dense urban areas are best equipped to handle large populations and growth. Urban sprawl is the prime underlying cause of our environmental regression, and by addressing the causes we can move in the direction of practical solutions that promote public transportation, shorter commutes, and other things that are related to the high quality of life our people expect and deserve.  I will constantly look to environment groups and other stakeholders to find common ideas to develop a long-term, practical, sustainable development plan.
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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The city manager set a worthy, though simplistic goal.  Crime issues are much more deep rooted and complex, and will require long-term solutions that tackle the roots of drug activity and crime.  The only way a city can directly reduce crime in the short term is to hire more police to protect, arrest, and convict.  I am in favor of letting police do their job, and will focus my energy on future goals that promote healthy communities and combat crime at its source so our kids do not get caught up in the system.
One method is to foster community programs such as safe streets, neighborhood business districts, and neighborhood council districts.  By giving these active residents a good avenue to communicate with police, we are giving officers eyes and ears all over the city.
Long term solutions include investing in early intervention programs that help role models connect with students in need before they drop out of school, get on drugs, and wind up in jail.  When a young person is arrested, we have failed.  There is so much more we can do.  All it takes is community energy and ideas.
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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?
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I have combed through most all of those documents, and am particularly interested in the legal documents considering I have ambitions of obtaining my law degree in the future.  This is a very complex legal issue that may drag on for years to come.  I am currently looking through them very closely with a legal eye to the facts.  I still don’t feel like we the public have all the information.
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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?
It is unfortunate that we are facing such a complex issue that threatens to cost the taxpayers huge amounts of capital in these tough economic times.  To me this resembles our crumbling street problem in the way it was neglected and pushed back for a future council to deal with.  The City Council in 1997 attempted to remedy the problem, but we still face the same issues today with no easy solutions.  It is unclear to me as to how much it will cost the city if Clear Channel was forced to remove blighted billboards and prevailed in suit, but my estimation puts that figure at around $30 million.  Again, I do not have all the information.
What is clear is that the city made two fundamental mistakes in mitigation.  First and most importantly, the people weren’t involved in any meaningful way at the beginning, which has come back as a major controversy.  Second, the initial settlement was heavily weighted in favor of Clear Channel, which I assume is the product of a weak negotiator. The signs to be removed were mostly in low traffic areas per my assessment.  What was needed is a fair & balanced settlement proposal to be considered by the people and the council together.  Possible mediation should include a drastic reduction in size, more stringent limits on residential & school area zoning placement, increases is static shift time (I would prefer 60 seconds), swifter and more certain removal of existing billboards, and a stipulation that the city should only be responsible for sign value reimbursement (not future loss of revenue) should a sign be removed in the future for any reason.  The settlement was not thoughtfully considered, and not in the best interest of the city and the people.
A better settlement should have been proposed to the people from the start, and public input should have been considered by the council before adoption.  The process should have been more open and transparent from the beginning. Now we have wasted time and are back to square one with increased opposition and public mistrust.  The people have lost faith in the ability of our government, which will take time and energy to rebuild.
I will defend the will of the people above all else, but the people must know all the facts.  It is imperative that the city fight to get the most favorable settlement, and bring all the facts plainly before our residents, including litigation cost options.  What I would like to see are cost estimations for all scenarios, so we, the people, can make an informed decision on how best to move forward.
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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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Our city & state B&O tax punishes employers that hire in our community, and is fundamentally inequitable.  Business with high expenditures (including costs of paying employees) often pay an unfair share of taxes, and in some cases businesses that do not make a profit can be stuck with a high B&O tax bill.  We need to be competitive and are moving in the right direction by raising the threshold, but fundamentally we need to work with the city and state to develop a more fair and equitable business tax structure.  A starting point would be an exemption for hiring local workers.  I am willing to discuss the feasibility and implication of such a shift.
The increase in threshold to $250K will save the businesses just over 2 million dollars in the next two years, which is not nearly enough to help businesses in Tacoma as they struggle through tough economic times.  Larger companies see little benefit in the increased threshold and in many cases are and have been incentivised to move out of Tacoma permanently.
We need to have a serious discussion on competitiveness and tax revenue, and work on a more stable funding measure to address our crumbling infrastructure.  Losing businesses hurts our bottom line, drives jobs to adjoining cities, and adversely affects our image long-term.
We also keep hearing that we are competitive to Bellevue, but as stated in the above question, the areas adjacent to Tacoma are offering better deals to attract our businesses right across our city borders.  We need to have a serious discussion before more businesses, jobs, and revenues leave the City of Destiny for good.
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Conclusion:
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Thank you for taking the time to read my take on these important and complex issues.  It is imperative that we foster an open dialogue as we move forward on realizing a common vision to capture the great potential of Tacoma.  If successful, I will work tirelessly to move the city forward and enact positive change.  I believe strongly in open, transparent government that communicates, listens, and acts with the will of the people in mind.  I will work hard to empower and invest in neighborhood groups to help us find the best path forward.  I will be a strong advocate and resource for the West End Neighborhoods by focusing on West End issues, and working to address our crumbling infrastructure by developing a transparent, comprehensive plan so the people can understand the extent of the neglect and consider alternate solutions.  And above all else, I appreciate this opportunity to serve you.  It would be an honor to earn your trust in these tough times.
There are many other issues that directly affect Tacoma & the West End, and I would be happy to discuss any of these issues with you any time.  Open communication is the foundation of our democratic way of life.

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published June 1st, 2011

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