The challenges facing Olympia, according to its outgoing city manager

Steve Hall would like to end on a positive note.

On walks through downtown, the longtime city manager would pass a homeless camp and think of all the challenges facing Olympia. But then he’d pass Percival Landing and think this the greatest city in the world.

“I think we get too hyper focused on what’s going wrong in this community,” he said. “People come to Olympia and they go, ‘Oh my gosh, look at this, look at this, look at this, look at this.’ And we sometimes forget that, how much good is happening.”

But in an interview last week in his mostly empty corner office, Hall, who is retiring after nearly 30 years at City Hall, outlined those challenges, starting with what he described as a rise in intolerance.

“The most destructive thing I’ve seen — I think destructive is the right word — is the rise of militancy in local government and demanding, unyielding, uncompromising special interest groups,” he said. “These are folks who want what they want and everybody else’s needs and interests are not valued or heard or respected.”

He cites public meetings in 2016 that had to be moved or canceled due to interruptions. Two years in a row, anti-fracking demonstrations blocked train tracks through downtown. Last year, activists targeted downtown businesses that hired private security guards.

Hall even got a home security system after people he called anarchists threatened to come to his house following the city’s closure of Artesian Commons Park over threats to park staff. A masked group briefly demonstrated outside Mayor Cheryl Selby’s house on May Day in 2018.

“The pressure put on elected officials and staff is more than unfortunate. It’s really undermining good government,” Hall said. “You can’t make decisions that are good for the community while being threatened or attacked either politically or personally.”

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Much of the current pressure stems from the city’s response to homelessness. Before last year, the city’s involvement was limited to funding and working with local nonprofits and social service agencies. Since then, the city has hired a response coordinator and opened a sanctioned camp downtown and a tiny home village, among other things.

How much good that has done is debatable. Hall said he was skeptical about getting directly involved in homelessness response, a new line of business for the city, with cost and staffing implications and no real road map to success.

“It is by far one of the biggest issues I’ve seen in my 30 years,” he told The Olympian. “It’s been magnified, I think, because of the abdication at the state and federal level, and I think so many of these issues go back to the lack of drug treatment and mental health treatment and the opioid crisis — big, big issues.

“What you do is you overload the ability of a small city to absorb all of that. And so until there are more facilities throughout the region and at the statewide level, central cities are going to just struggle with this,” he said.

That includes how to pay for it. Hall’s final budget presentation to the City Council last month included a proposed 1 percent utility tax increase to close a funding gap for 2020. But he warned of hard times to come as traditional sources of revenue for the city decline, including sales tax on brick-and-mortar shopping and taxes on cable television.

With property tax increases capped, the city is under pressure to maintain services without raising the sales tax rate, already creeping toward 10 percent. Add to that fallout over Initiative 976, which voters approved this week and is poised to wipe out nearly half the city’s street repair budget, and a looming economic downturn.

“The things that the city traditionally has taxed are going away, and the things that are generating revenue like the internet and other things, we can’t tax. So structurally, there are problems,” Hall said.

Time for a change?

Hall was only the third city manager of Olympia. He arrived at City Hall a few years after the city switched from being run by a three-person commission to the council-manager form of government, which was thought to promote representation and transparency. Leaders started televising City Council meetings and created citizen advisory committees on everything from arts and parks to historical preservation and utilities.

Meanwhile, passage of the state’s Growth Management Act brought a push to create dense urban cores while preserving rural areas, prompting new conversations around land use.

“I think (the change to council-manager) was important because we were changing, in my opinion, from a small town still to really a city,” Hall said. “The city was really growing and changing in terms of population, how we’re dealing with growth, infrastructure, housing density, and then the government was changing and opening up as well.”

None of these issues have gone away. Over the years, Hall said, things would get magnified, die down, come back.

“Maybe that’s the greatest lesson I’ve learned, that in time this will work its way out,” he said. “I think it’s hard, especially for newly-elected officials or citizens who think, ‘It’s the end of the world, this is it.’ And you’re going, ‘Yeah, this will come up again in five years, it will come up again in seven years.’”

What does he make of talk of changing the structure of local government again, this time perhaps to a strong mayor system, where the mayor essentially serves as the city manager? That will be up to voters, he said, but he is biased toward the current system.

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“I think personally the strong mayor form of government vests a lot more power in one person,” he said, including decisions on staffing, budget and the flow of information. “You’re really taking power away from the (seven-member) council and giving it to one person.”

Weighing the pros and cons will be someone else’s problem. Hall said he has no intention of running for office or even attending City Council meetings. Instead, he looks forward to coaching little league baseball. He has signed up for a cross-country bike ride in June, and he and his wife were headed to Disneyland this weekend.

Apparently retiring city managers celebrate the same way as Super Bowl champions.

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Abby Spegman joined The Olympian in 2017. She covers the city of Olympia and a little bit of everything else. She previously worked at newspapers in Oregon, New Hampshire and Hawaii.