Olympia City Council discusses dilemmas and more at midyear retreat

The Olympia City Council had its midyear retreat Saturday to discuss goals and challenges for the coming months.

Topics covered at length included finances, downtown development and public communication. Members of four government committees also outlined their progress to this point — and strategies for the future.

All seven council members attended. No decisions were made at the retreat, which was at the LOTT Board Room at 500 Adams Street.

Key discussion points:

•  The council talked at length about “telling our story,” which refers to the city’s communication with the public. Several council members said they wanted to increase public understanding and participation in city issues.

Other suggestions included a more active approach in educating the public and framing issues in order to minimize emotional reactions. As an example, Mayor Stephen Buxbaum cited the recent controversy over a colony of great blue herons on the city’s west side. Citizens are at odds with city protection policies and a developer who first tried to build townhomes on the site in 2010.

“We have failed on the herons,” said Buxbaum, adding that more “institutional memory” could have already solved the problem. “That was an issue four years ago. What did we do about it?”

•  The proposed Community Renewal Area is still in the planning stages. The CRA is an economic development tool that gives the city more power to work with private developers and landowners. The CRA is seen as one way to remove barriers to development and fix several blighted areas, including the isthmus properties downtown.

Buxbaum presented three hypothetical scenarios for the isthmus that estimated the return on investment, for example, depending on what type of development occurred in conjunction with a new city park. One scenario showed that a hotel-park combo on the property would yield a much higher return on investment compared with a site that was a single large park without a hotel.

“I don’t want to over-promise and under-deliver,” said Buxbaum, reiterating that the city has no money to build a park at this time.

Council members Cheryl Selby and Jim Cooper said citizens want a civic space, but no one is seeing a solid plan for the isthmus property.

“The isthmus is a big hole in our downtown,” Cooper said.

•  Other efforts were discussed regarding the city’s goal of improving downtown Olympia. The city is seeking proposals to install alleyway lights. At Saturday’s retreat, an update was provided about the Alcohol Impact Area, which banned the sale of certain high-gravity alcoholic drinks downtown. So far, the program has led to a decrease in litter from the beverages on the list, but other brands have taken their place, according to a report. City staff will recommend adding 40 more brands to the list of banned beverages at the Sept. 9 City Council meeting.

•  Olympia faces higher costs in the coming years because of the Affordable Care Act and higher pension rates, especially in 2018, said city Finance Director Jane Kirkemo. She noted that the 2015 city budget would contain few cuts and no additions.

•  Cooper and fellow councilman Nathaniel Jones reiterated their support for a B&O tax on Providence St. Peter Hospital, which has so far avoided the tax because of its nonprofit status. Cooper said he looks forward to a “comprehensive overhaul” of the tax requirements and closing “a significant loophole” in the B&O tax rules. “We’re not going to see our retail sales tax bounce back,” Cooper said, referring to the goal of creating a sustainable budget for the city.

•  An ongoing task is updating the comprehensive plan, which outlines the city’s goals and vision for the next 20 years. The city’s Land Use and Environment Committee members discussed the “action plan” and performance measures for tracking progress. Council approval of the plan is months away, but a draft of the plan can be viewed online at imagineolympia.com.