OLYMPIA – Three Olympia women are vying for a council seat that doesn’t have an incumbent, each saying she is uniquely qualified.
Councilwoman Karen Messmer said she’s leaving her post after her four-year term is up this year. Whoever is elected will wrestle with major issues including the city’s faltering budget due to the economy, the fate of the downtown isthmus and downtown itself.
Karen Rogers, a policy specialist with the state Liquor Control Board, cites her work in government and her familiarity with the Shoreline Master Program and the city’s comprehensive plan.
“I began my first civic action participation when I was 16 years old,” she said. “I’ve worked on gay rights, animal rights, consumer protection, environmental studies and protecting the environment.”
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Amy Tousley, a municipal manager for Puget Sound Energy, touts her 12 years on the Olympia Planning Commission and work on other advisory committees.
“I don’t know how I could be more prepared,” she said.
She also ran for City Council in 2007, losing in the primary.
Karen Veldheer, an entrepreneur who formed a neighborhood association, said her business background distinguishes her from the other candidates. She works for REworks Homes, a startup that arranges for people to lease to own homes, and kvmall.net, a green e-commerce site.
“I have a grassroots orientation,” she said.
Rogers and Veldheer are sharply critical of Tousley’s recommendation to the council to raise building heights on the strip of land between Budd Inlet and Capitol Lake. The council raised building heights last year, paving the way the way for Triway Enterprises to build five- and seven-story mixed-use buildings with 141 high-end condominiums.
To Rogers, it’s the city’s biggest issue. She said she opposes allowing buildings over 35 feet on the isthmus, the previous limit set by the council.
“Our community has made it overwhelmingly clear that they do not want those high-rise developments on our shoreline, and I’m going to respect our community’s wishes,” she said.
Rogers said the current council isn’t listening to voters, citing the hundreds of people who testified against taller buildings on the isthmus. She also said the council is allowing neighborhood streets to become through corridors.
Veldheer said one of the biggest issues she sees in the city is public confidence in elected officials. She criticized the council for taking on expensive capital projects, such as building a new $35.6 million City Hall, a project that she said had “no significant public input.” She said the city needs to engage neighborhood associations more.
Tousley said she generally likes the direction in which the current council is headed.
“I’m looking at more than one issue that’s facing the city in the next four years,” she said, adding that the biggest issue facing the city is its declining budget.
Tousley said she stands by her recommendation for taller building heights for housing.
“It was about getting some mixed-use development downtown,” she said.
But Tousley said the commission could have had a better public process. The planning commission hearing about the issue ended with many people still waiting to make comments. That prompted the Olympia City Council to schedule multiple public hearings so everyone who signed up could speak.
“There’s no reason the planning commission also couldn’t have had that,” she said.
And she regrets that the city denied people who asked for a waterfront visioning process in the past several years. She said she wished the city’s decision about the isthmus had been delayed until the state shoreline master plan for the area was redone.
But she said there was nothing improper about the rezone, as opponents have claimed.
“It was never a spot zone, in my opinion,” she said.
The candidates also expressed their opinions on a proposal from the Olympia Isthmus Park Association to turn the area into a park.
Rogers said she wants to gauge what the community’s vision of the isthmus is and thinks a proposal for an isthmus park is premature.
“I am open to reconsidering this proposal a few years from now, when our economy recovers and people get their jobs back,” she said.
Tousley said the park idea has merit, but she thinks current property owners need to be compensated at the price they want, not an assessor’s value.
“I definitely support putting it to the voters,” she said.
Veldheer said she’d support the effort of park advocates.
“As citizens, they should have input, and the City Council should listen to them,” she said.
How to revitalize Olympia’s downtown is an issue that won’t go away. It was a key topic during City Council elections two years ago.
City studies have routinely found that the way to improve downtown is to bring more housing. A 1988 report called for adding 18 to 23 units a year. The 1994 comprehensive plan called for 1,500 new market-rate units by 2010. A 2004 report called for 2,500 new units to be built over 20 years.
“The city needs to encourage job growth and multiuse downtown,” Veldheer said. But she said the city can’t force development and was critical of the city offering property-tax breaks for housing in certain areas, saying that it hasn’t accomplished what was intended: new housing.
The council this year approved property-tax breaks of eight years for market-rate housing and 12 years for affordable housing. Before the Legislature changed the law, the city had a 10-year property-tax exemption for some properties.
Rogers said she supports market-rate housing “that is directed at our natural economic base and that is not in the upper echelon.” She said the city can zone for density and height in areas where officials want development.
She said downtown needs “help with image” and has a reputation of being unfriendly to developers.
“The city is trying to attract development that the community is against rather than trying to attract development that the community will support,” she said.
Tousley said the government needs to work with the private sector to get housing. She mentioned that 20,000 people work downtown, but few live downtown, and that downtown has the two poorest census districts in Thurston County. But she said the city has given enough incentives for developers.
“I think we’re waiting for the market,” she said.
Another issue that will bedevil the newly elected council this year is the city’s budget, which is faltering because of the bad economy. City Manager Steve Hall cut 21.5 positions and some programs for the 2010 budget but found it wasn’t enough. He now plans to eliminate $2.6 million more, as well as more positions, for 2010. The news could be worse at year’s end.
That leaves the council with two options: continue to sustain cuts or raise more revenue.
Rogers doesn’t favor asking voters to raise their taxes.
“I would be on the side of decreasing certain services,” she said, but declined to name what those were. She said she wouldn’t cut police, fire, roads and utilities.
Veldheer also doesn’t favor a tax increase.
“Cutting spending is definitely the way to go,” she said. She said she favored cutting capital spending and instituting performance audits.
Tousley suggested a “town hall” approach to tell voters of the need for budget cuts. However, “if our expectations are still the same,” she said, “we will have to go out and look for a levy-lid lift.”
Matt Batcheldor: 360-704-6869
Olympia city council position 4a
Occupation: Policy specialist, state Liquor Control Board
Political experience: Thurston County Planning Commission, Olympia Utility Advisory Committee, helped write bill creating Puget Sound Partnership
Education: Bachelor’s degree in political science, University of Florida, master’s degree in wetland ecology, University of Florida
Contact information: 360-628-7052, email@example.com, www.citizensforkarenrogers.org
Occupation: Municipal manager, Puget Sound Energy
Political experience: Olympia Planning Commission, Utility Advisory Committeee, Design Review Board, Heritage Commission
Education: Bachelor’s degree in urban original planning, Eastern Washington University
Contact information: 360-704-8633, firstname.lastname@example.org, www.amytousley.com
Occupation: Small business owner, REworks Homes, a startup that arranges for people to lease to own homes, and kvmall.net, a green e-commerce site.
Political experience: None
Education: Bachelor’s degree in organizational leadership, Biola University, La Mirada, Calif.
Contact information: email@example.com, www.karenveldheer.com