Politics from the Palouse to Puget Sound

Saturday, October 27, 2007

"Pullman City Council candidates want growth; Sorensen, Weller would welcome Wal-Mart to Pullman"

When you read this, remember that PARD claims only a "handful of fanatics" want Wal-Mart in Pullman. From today's Moscow-Pullman Daily News:
Al Sorensen and Nathan Weller make it no secret that they shop at Wal-Mart and they both have to go to Moscow to do it.

"I would be a hypocrite to say I was against Wal-Mart," Weller said. "But Wal-Mart isn't going to solve everything. It's not a silver bullet for Pullman's economic development."

Sorensen, 45, will duke it out with 25-year-old newcomer Nathan Weller to retain his Pullman City Council Ward 2 position. mail-in ballots for the Nov. 6 election were sent out Oct. 19.

Economic development - and a candidate's views on Wal-Mart, in particular - is a hot-ticket item in this fall's City Council election. A community debate about whether or not the retail giant should be allowed to set up shop in town began in October 2004, when Wal-Mart officials announced plans to build a store on Bishop Boulevard.

Members of the Pullman Alliance for Responsible Development appealed the city's approval of the retail corporation's environmental checklist and site plan. The appeal was dismissed in 2005 by Whitman County Superior Court Judge David Frazier. Currently, the case is held up in Washington's Division III Court of Appeals. No date has been set for the hearing, which will include oral arguments.

Sorensen wants Wal-Mart naysayers to understand the amount of sales tax revenue lost each day the store is not open in Pullman. As Pullman residents go to Moscow to shop, dollars are going with them.

"We're losing money right now and we don't have any money to lose," he said.

The city's budget is tight and Sorensen said the council may have to refuse department heads' requests for the 2008 budget, including the push for more police officers, firefighters and improvements to Reaney Pool.

"The city can't do it," he said. "Economic development and sales have got to increase. If people want more paths and parks and pavilions, we're going to have to have money. I just want Pullman to retain the tax money we should be getting,"

Also on this year's ballot are Mayor Glenn Johnson, Ward 1 Councilman Benjamin Francis and at-large Councilman Keith Bloom. Each are running unopposed for re-election.

Devon Felsted - who was running unopposed to replace Councilman David Stiller - has removed himself from the election due to conflict of interest issues, though his name will appear on the ballot.

Johnson said Pullman is struggling financially because it can only legally increase property taxes by 1 percent each year. With the increasing cost of living and insurance and employee health care costs on the rise, Pullman could use the extra bucks that Wal-Mart - or any economic development projects - would bring in.

"You cannot run a city with a 1 percent lid without getting additional revenue sources. Otherwise, we may be facing some layoffs," Johnson said. "The city of Pullman needs economic development, especially in retail."

Benjamin said Pullman's sales tax dollars are lower than they should be.

"That speaks to the people who go outside Pullman to shop," he said. "Wal-Mart would be a good mix in Pullman."

Bloom doesn't buy the idea that Wal-Mart will cause local businesses to dry up. Wal-Mart's presence will force smaller businesses to find their niche, he said. He used the now closed Ken Vogel Clothing as an example, noting the Main Street business tailored to customers seeking high-quality clothing, while Wal-Mart sells cheaper goods.

"There isn't a business downtown that will suffer," Bloom said. "I've thought long and hard about who will get hurt and it's no one."

Weller agreed, noting that specialty stores such as Ricoshay or Bruised Books would likely be able to compete with the big-box store.

"I'm not going to get what's at Ricoshay at Wal-Mart," he said.

Sorensen said the city should welcome all economic development opportunities instead of chase them out of town.

"Other businesses know if there's a Wal-Mart, there will be more shoppers for their goods," he said. "If Wal-Mart gets denied to come here, how are other potential businesses going to feel?"

Johnson said several retail spaces have sprung up around town - such as the Crimson Village on Bishop Boulevard - in anticipation of Wal-Mart.

"They build it and businesses have a tendency to flock nearby," he said.

Wal-Mart would mean much more than low-priced accessible goods, Sorensen said. Economic development in the entire Pullman-area hinges on whether or not Wal-Mart comes to town. More economic development will mean more revenue for the city - and revenue is what's needed to extend services into the Pullman-Moscow Highway corridor.

Sorensen said a proposal to split sales tax revenue 50-50 with the county from commercial businesses in the corridor would be a positive step. For now, development is limited because water and sewer service are not available. During early negotiations, county commissioners have promised to provide the city with some grant money on top of the tax revenue, if Pullman officials will use the money to extend water and sewer services east of town.

Sorensen said the city and county will have to work together to reach an agreement - but it will be mutually beneficial.

Pullman receives .85 percent of the 1 percent local share of sales tax on sales made within city limits, while the county receives .15 percent. Within unincorporated areas - which includes much of the Pullman-Moscow Highway - 100 percent of the local share goes to the county.

Benjamin said he supports projects such as the Knowledge Corridor, which would keep recent college graduates on the Palouse, with cooperative efforts from the cities of Pullman and Moscow, as well as Whitman and Latah counties and the two local universities.

Weller said regardless of whether Wal-Mart sets up shop in Pullman, or development occurs in the corridor, the city must continue to help small business. He suggests city sponsored forums - and perhaps even consultants - would help to keep local businesses successful.

Weller said he is concerned Wal-Mart may increase traffic on Bishop Boulevard, noting he doesn't want to see long-term residents "interrupted" by more cars on the road. He said he supports a Bishop Boulevard study, currently being conducted for the city. The study, which is due out later this fall, will examine road safety and how development in southeast Pullman - such as the potential construction of Wal-Mart - would affect traffic.

"We need a real comprehensive plan for this," Weller said. "It's a lot of planning, but the benefits outweigh the problems."

Sorensen agreed. As excited as he is to see economic development, he doesn't want new businesses popping up without a game plan.

"I'm ready for (development) to happen, but I want it managed," Sorensen said. "We need smart thinking so that 10, 20, 30 years down the road we know where they're going to be put."

Bloom said he believes in capitalistic ideology.

"Let the market determine what works," he said.
A story in Wednesday's Moscow-Pullman Daily News backs up these claims:
In other business, Finance Director Troy Woo told the council that 2008 will be another tight financial year, and the challenge will be to adopt a budget that doesn't dip too far into Pullman's reserves. An initial general fund budget indicates the 2008 year-end cash balance would be $1.785 million - $294,150 below the council mandated 13 percent reserve level.

Woo discussed the preliminary budget with the council Tuesday, explaining that employee cost of living adjustments are slated to increase by about $225,000 in 2008 and benefit and insurance costs continue to increase. Requests by the Parks and Recreation Department for a feasibility study of Reaney Park and Pool, as well as Police Chief Ted Weatherly's plea for more officers, likely won't be possible because of increased financial obligations.

"We would just be going in the wrong direction if we approved those enhancements," he said.

But things aren't all bad.

With a "record level" of construction during the last several years, Woo expected sales tax collections to trickle off. But with projects such as the Washington State University Compton Union Building remodel and construction underway on Martin Stadium, related sales tax collections should continue through 2008.

The city also expects to see an increase in its assessed property value, which could property tax revenues. Early estimates show $64 million could be added to Pullman's assessed value.

"We're very pleased to see that high amount being added to the assessment role," he said. "Property tax is the city's largest source of revenue."

Councilmen Bloom and Barney Waldrop suggested it may be necessary to cut back the work force, in order to not rely so heavily on year end savings to even out the budget.

"I think if we continue down that path, we're setting ourselves up," Bloom said.

Woo cautioned the council not to make any big decisions right away, as the 2008 budget still is in its very preliminary stages.

"I'd really hate to make drastic moves right now (and then) learn we were incorrect," Woo said.

A series of public meetings will precede the council's adoption of the 2008 budget, which is scheduled for Dec. 4.
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