A projected $9 million budget shortfall in Federal Way over the next two years is dominating the campaign for the city's first publicly elected mayor.
The three current City Council members who are running – Jim Ferrell, Linda Kochmar and Mike Park – say the budget deficit is the city’s most pressing issue. The fourth candidate, state Rep. Skip Priest, R-Federal Way, says the top challenge is creating jobs and filling vacant retail and office space.
All four candidates are focused on the same underlying problem: the ailing economy. Declining sales, real estate and utility tax revenues have caused a projected $4.5 million city deficit for each of the next two years.
While layoffs loom, Federal Way’s first strong mayor will have other issues to tackle, including crime, downtown development and plans for a 45-story skyscraper project.
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But the new mayor’s most immediate challenge will be learning to oversee the daily operations of a city with 88,760 residents and a $42 million annual budget – and deciding whether to hire a city administrator to help with the task.
Voters electing their own mayor is the biggest change to Federal Way since the city incorporated in 1990. On Aug. 17, Federal Way voters will cut the field in half, with the top two vote-getters advancing to the Nov. 2 general election.
At stake is the chance to lead the state’s ninth-largest city for a salary of $112,800.
The choice is between the three current Federal Way City Council members and a former City Council member who was later elected to the Legislature.
Ferrell led the campaign to switch to a strong, elected mayor last November, which voters narrowly approved.
Kochmar and Park opposed the change, preferring the council-manager system Federal Way has had since becoming a city.
Priest opposed the strong mayor measure when voters rejected it in February 2008 but didn’t take a position when voters approved it.
Strong elected mayors, like the ones in Auburn, Bonney Lake and Gig Harbor, work full time directing city operations.
“The elected mayor will be truly accountable to the public,” Ferrell said. “I think you’re going to see a lot more accountability and oversight.”
Under the current council-manager system, the City Council elects the mayor – a mostly ceremonial post – from its ranks every two years, while a professional city manager runs the city.
Park said the current system is working well but he respects the voters’ decision.
“The reason I’m running is Federal Way is facing great challenges,” Park said. The owner of Midway Cleaners in Kent said he wants use his small-business background to create more jobs and revenue and bring more investment to Federal Way.
Park has raised more than twice the amount of any of his competitors in cash and in-kind donations. Figures from the Public Disclosure Commission’s website Monday showed Park had raised $83,417, with $33,809 unspent. Ferrell was second, raising $41,451, with $10,158 cash left. Priest had raised $27,215, with $6,620 unspent. Kochmar had collected $13,538, with $124 left.
Kochmar, the current appointed mayor, said she’s running “because I’m very protective of the city.”
“If we work together collectively on what is best for the city, we will move this city forward in the best manner possible,” Kochmar said.
Priest stresses that the economic problems facing Federal Way are not unique.
“Every city, county and state is facing a budget deficit,” Priest said. “In order to provide the revenues that are necessary to meet our most important priorities, like public safety, we’re going to have to create jobs in our community and fill our vacant retail and office spaces.”
Ferrell said his top budget priority is maintaining the current level of police services.
“When people pick up the phone and need help, the budget should not have an effect on that,” Ferrell said.
NO EASY CHOICES
The council will approve the 2011 budget around the time the elected mayor takes office in early December.
Park said carry-forward funds and savings from a road project could reduce the shortfall.
Kochmar said the council will make its decisions on cuts and expenses after proposals from department heads and the city manager.
“It’s not an easy choice,” she said.
Priest talks about prioritizing and controlling spending. He also has suggested considering furloughs and program cuts.
Ferrell suggests trimming the street overlay program and examining whether each budget item is necessary.
One clear-cut difference between the candidates is where they stand on hiring a city administrator to assist the mayor.
Park and Kochmar say an administrator is necessary to run a city the size of Federal Way on a day-to-day basis under the mayor’s supervision.
The mayor also needs to work regionally to represent the city and be its face, Koch-mar said.
Priest said he wouldn’t hire a city administrator because the city can’t afford another layer of government. He said he has the experience to run the city on a day-to-day basis.
Ferrell said a city administrator could cost up to $200,000 annually in salary and benefits. The city has department heads with expertise, he noted, adding that a city administrator would supplant the elected mayor’s job of running the city.
“I’m not running for mayor to be the ribbon- cutter-in-chief,” Ferrell said. “We don’t need a ceremonial mayor. We’ve had 21 years of that.”