In University Place, two incumbent City Council members and their challengers are facing off about the costs of Town Center and the responsibilities of hosting the U.S. Open in 2015.
Those are two big issues confronting leaders in the suburb of 31,340 people, Pierce County’s fourth-largest city. Whoever is elected will have a say in how UP retires a total debt of around $48 million, most of which is related to Town Center.
Longtime Council member Ken Grassi is challenged by Carl Mollnow, a perennial candidate making his fourth attempt at a council seat since 2007. Meanwhile, first-term council member Eric Choiniere seeks re-election against Steve Worthington, a former Fife city manager.
Worthington, 59, said a top priority for University Place must be reducing debt and building reserves.
The retired city administrator said the mixed-use Town Center project, introduced a decade ago as a huge sales-tax generator for the city, must be completed “because we have no other resources to do anything else.”
“The challenge there is if we have a financial emergency, there’s no place to go,” he said.
Choiniere, 45, an unemployed customer-service worker, said he feels great about the Town Center project. He expects a major deal to be announced by the end of the year.
“It’s been a success of perseverance,” he said.
He also feels positive about the U.S. Open at Chambers Bay golf course and says it will be a boom for the region.
The city may have law enforcement and public works costs associated with the influx of people attending the golf championship. Total attendance has been pegged at 235,000 for the weeklong event.
If Pierce County does ask UP to pick up some security costs, the city should seek federal grants or other means without using city dollars, Choiniere said.
“I’m not going to support something that is going to wreck our budget,” Choiniere said.
Worthington also sees benefits in hosting the U.S. Open.
“I think it’s a great opportunity for this community to show itself off,” he said.
“I don’t believe it’s going to have a significant longterm economic benefit, but it sure will make us feel good.”
But he says security is the county’s responsibility, and University Place shouldn’t pay for it.
Worthington sees a potential financial train wreck ahead for his city.
By 2018, UP’s police contract with the Pierce County’s Sheriff’s Department will eclipse property tax revenue, he said. The community, he said, must have a conversation whether to reduce services or whether new taxes for public safety would be acceptable.
With nearly 25 years of municipal government work under his belt, Worthington said, “I’m better prepared to engage in that conversation than my opponent is.”
Worthington worked as city manager of Fife from 2005 to early 2011.
Choiniere said the city plans to start discussions next year about paying for public safety. With the improved economy, the solution might not require going to voters for more tax money, he said.
Choiniere ran unsuccessfully as a Democrat for a House seat in Legislative District 28 in 2012. Because of the toll that race took on his family, he said he won’t run for another office if re-elected to the UP council.
“I am staying for four years,” Choiniere said. “I have no intention of running for anything outside of City Council.”
This election is a repeat of the Grassi-Mollnow contest in 2009. Grassi, owner of Grassi’s Flowers and Gifts, won that race and is currently mayor in the city’s council-manager system, chosen by his fellow council members.
Mollnow, 76, a retired Air Force instructor pilot, said most of the city’s debt is because of Town Center, which he believes will never develop as originally planned with a movie theater and upscale shopping. He said the city should hang on to what’s been built but sell land for the rest “and let somebody else do it.”
“Government shouldn’t be in the development business,” Mollnow said.
Grassi, 58, said he feels very good about Town Center, with the first phase of apartments including a ground floor of retail space completed in August. He expects the project will make its biggest announcement yet by the end of December, but like Choiniere he declined to elaborate.
Citizens told the city four years ago to “‘hang onto the dream,’” Grassi said. “We did, and that was the right decision.”
For the U.S. Open, Grassi said the city should shoulder some costs for public safety “within reason” because it will receive a portion of the sales tax revenue.
Mollnow, by contrast, said UP shouldn’t help cover U.S. Open costs, including public safety.
While it’s good that the golf tournament is taking place in the city, Mollnow said any city money spent on it will be “another thing down the drain.”
Mollnow said University Place’s biggest problem is spending.
“They’ve spent themselves into $50 million in debt,” Mollnow said. He wants to cut spending to pay off the city’s debt early.
Mollnow said the city’s expenditures on roundabouts and related landscaping have hurt access to businesses.
Grassi said finding creative ways to add to parks and open space is an issue facing the city.
The only person still on the council since UP’s incorporation in 1995, Grassi says he’s seeking to retain a seat because “there’s just a lot of unfinished business that I hope to see come to fruition.”