People do not respond well to bullying, scare tactics and threats. Being honest about problems and open-minded about solutions while listening to good advice matters. And rebuilding trust takes a tremendous amount of work.
These should be the lessons learned by University Place city officials after voters soundly rejected an April ballot measure to create a local parks-and-recreation district.
Prior to the election, city officials threatened the community by vowing to cut parks and rec programs in 2017 unless a new parks district was formed. University Place voters called the city’s bluff – stunning for a community that routinely raises taxes to pay for local schools, libraries, and parks and recreation opportunities.
For city leaders, it would be cavalier to dismiss the failure as an anti-tax vote. It would be exceptionally petty and vindictive to follow through on its threat.
So why did voters like me – dependable voters who support taxes for anything related to children and seniors – vote no?
Voters have lost trust in our city government. The distrust is rooted in the decade-long University Place Town Center development, a well-intended effort that has disproportionally handcuffed the city’s finances for the next two decades.
Yes, there’s visible progress. But the Whole Foods’ excitement is dashed when the sobering financial details are spelled out: Until 2036, University Place taxpayers have an annual $3.5 million payment for $43 million Town Center debt. That’s a bundle of taxpayer money for a Jersey Mike’s, a high-end doughnut shop, a bunch of apartments and a relocated library that was working just fine in a stand-alone building.
After a decade of four different developers, raised hopes and false starts, taxpayers’ long-running patience wore thin. Voters’ self-taxing generosity has ended with solid rejections of the recent parks measure and a 2014 proposed utility tax hike to fund police-related public safety programs. Until the trust is rebuilt between City Hall and taxpayers, voters will continue to say no.
So how are we going to rebuild the trust?
City Hall should convene a diverse group of community leaders to talk openly about the financial and policy realities. Newer city council members saddled with the public frustration that started before their terms have a genuine opportunity to reestablish trust and confidence with University Place residents.
After this initial effort, City Hall should extend the conversation to the entire community through several town hall-style meetings. City leaders need to let the public vent, listen to our ideas, and engage with the community.
City leaders should work closely with the University Place School District – a model of inclusion, accountability, transparency and responsiveness to taxpayers. Our parks and rec future relies on the continued use of school fields and gyms. Hopefully the district is willing to extend its well-earned goodwill to the city.
Perhaps state lawmakers should tie state funding for local governments with cost-savings measures that reduce the administrative costs in all cities. One idea: require cities to participate in a shared-services system for their financial, payroll and accounting functions in exchange for state funding.
Our parks and rec programs attract young families seeking affordable housing in a safe community with strong public schools. Retirees like it here due in part to the diversity of senior-focused parks and recreation opportunities.
But the bullying and threats must end. City Hall, please trust the public. We’re demanding but forgiving, if we’re included.
Bill Stauffacher lives in University Place. Co-founder of the Vikings Baseball Club, he has consulted on bond measures benefitting Zoo-Trek-Parks, Pierce County Library System, MetroParks Tacoma and the City of Tacoma.