Benson’s First Term
Benson’s first term on the City Council was a busy one and many issues were addressed.
Mercer Island Library. Shortly after he was sworn in, members of our community and the King County Library System (KCLS) disagreed on the scope and design of the Island’s library renovation. Benson was one of three City Councilmembers that worked with members of our community to reach an agreement with the KCLS that allowed for the needed update of certain building systems and other improvements while preserving the library’s charm and character.
E. Coli Contamination. Faced with a prolonged crisis involving contamination of our water supply, Benson along with the other members of the City Council and City staff diligently worked with the State Department of Health and other agencies in trying to locate the source of the contamination and in adopting steps to make our water potable as soon as possible. One step taken by the City Council was to increase the water rates to raise funds specifically targeted to improving our aging water system in hopes of mitigating the occurrence of another contaminated water incident. Among the important lessons learned were how to better disseminate information to the public about emergent situations. This health crisis also led to the City’s construction of the Emergency Operations Center (EOC), which is located at the Mercer Island City Hall. Since Benson wants the City to be more proactive in preparing the Island to address natural emergencies, having its own EOC will greatly aid the City in responding to future emergencies.
Development Code Changes. A significant amount of time during Benson’s first term was spent on matters involving development on the Island.
Comprehensive Plan and Town Center. First, the City Council updated the City’s Comprehensive Plan to comply with the Growth Management Act. Part of that update process included amending the Town Center Development Code. This process took a few years and was concluded during June 2016. For more information, you can go to Town Center Development.
Having lived in the Town Center for over a year (2014-2015), Benson believes that many of the adopted changes will improve the livability and walkability of the Town Center. Some of the amendments also encourage more affordable and diverse housing options in the Town Center. As Islanders age and down-size, many of them want to stay on the Island. Consequently, providing different types of housing options in the future will be important to ensuring that the Island is an inter-generational community.
Residential Development Standards. Maintaining the residential character of Mercer Island was one of the goals set by the City Council at the beginning of 2017. Benson is proud to state that on September 19, 2017, after a very long public engagement process, the City Council adopted changes to the City’s residential development standards and tree ordinance. These changes become effective on November 1, 2017. Among the changes made are the following:
- Reducing the gross floor area of a single-family residence from 45 percent to 40 percent of the lot.
- Imposing a maximum house size in each residential zone.
- Increasing side setbacks to allow more space between single family residences.
- To protect the Island’s tree canopy, some of the changes to the city’s tree ordinance include requiring the retention of 30 percent of the large trees (10” in diameter or more) if a lot is being developed, additional protections for trees that have been identified as “exceptional” trees.
For more information, you can go to Residential Development Standards.
Impact Fees. In addition, during his first term, the City Council enacted ordinances imposing impact fees that require developers to pay fees needed to address the impacts on our schools, parks and streets related to the new development.
I-90 Transportation and Mobility
There is little doubt that the issue that dominated the City Council’s time for over two years was the City’s dispute with Sound Transit and the Washington State Department of Transportation over the Island’s loss of mobility once the center roadway was closed as part of the East Link Project.
The federal government’s current position is that single occupancy vehicles from the Island going west on I-90 cannot use the Island Crest Way onramp because that onramp feeds into the I-90 HOV lane. Consequently, SOV drivers have had to find a new way to access westbound I-90. The City continues to work with Congressman Adam Smith in trying to develop a strategy to change the federal government’s current position so that Island SOVs can once again use the ICW onramp to head west to Seattle.
The litigation that the City commenced during February 2017 to pursue the enforcement of historical regional agreements spurred Sound Transit and WSDOT back to the negotiating table. A negotiated settlement was tentatively reached on May 31, 2017 and it is projected that the parties will sign a settlement agreement during October 2017 requiring Sound Transit to pay the City $10.1 million. Of this amount, $5.1 million is to be used for street improvements and traffic enhancements to address our loss of mobility and $4.4 million is to be applied towards providing commuter parking for Island residents. For more information, you can go to East Link Project.
Future Issues – The Next Four Years
City Finances and Budget
The good news is that the city’s budget is balanced through 2018. However, starting in 2019 the City’s Finance Director is projecting a deficit in the City’s two largest operating funds, the General Fund and the Youth & Family Services Fund (YFS). The General Fund pays for police, fire, emergency, medical, municipal court, parks and recreation, street maintenance, planning and community development, and administrative services. The YFS Fund pays for Thrift Shop operations, school counseling, and other social services.
Being stewards of the taxes paid by Island residents that are used to operate the City and provide services to Island residents is one of the essential jobs of the City Council. Benson is committed to being a good steward of the Island’s financial resources. Benson knows it is critical for the City to stabilize its finances to address the projected deficits and at the same time provide a level of service that the Island residents expect and want.
As a small business owner (he is a partner in a mid-sized Seattle law firm), Benson understands the need to ensure that the City is operated as effectively and efficiently as possible before considering additional sources of revenue. For instance, to determine if some of the City’s departments were operating efficiently, the City conducted a recent performance audit of the its Public Works Department. Here’s more information about that audit of the Public Works Department. Benson wants the City to explore all possible ways to reduce its operating expenses without sacrificing the delivery of services required and expected by the Island residents. He also wants to continue upgrading of the City’s technology and equipment to expand and improve the City’s delivery of services.
To stay ahead of this challenge, Benson along with the other Councilmembers approved a proposal to form a Community Advisory Group to discuss the levels of services that the community wants and how to finance them. The City will also be using other means to gather input from more Island residents about how it should address its projected deficits, e.g., a survey and the holding of a “Telephone Town Hall.” For more information about the beginning of this public engagement process go to City's Financial Challenges. This public process is critical to understanding (a) the prioritization that Island residents place on City services, and (b) what services might be maintained, expanded, or cut based on these priorities. Please let your voice be heard on this matter when the opportunities arise.
With the recommendations from CAG and the City Manager and the information gathered through other outreach efforts, Benson wants the City Council to continue the conversation with the community about how to move forward. Benson is also mindful that this conversation does not happen in a vacuum and that whatever action the City Council takes must consider all of the other measures that have recently passed that results in increases to the amount of taxes and fees paid by Island residents.
On September 18, 2017, the City Manager convened a “Gathering of the Greens” at City Hall. Benson supports re-energizing the City’s focus on sustainability efforts and the development of Sustainability/Climate Action Plan. While the City has made great strides in adopting policies and practices aimed at protecting our environment, there is always more that can be done and more that needs to be done to protect our environment for future generations.
Benson recognizes the passion that is associated with siting a performing arts center on City-owned land in the northwest corner of Mercerdale Park. He has heard many viewpoints expressed during public appearances, while talking with residents at the Farmers Market and while doorbelling the Island. When he first ran in 2013 he made a commitment to listen and he continues to listen to all points of view as he considers and balances competing interests.
If no other viable site is identified, Benson supports locating the proposed Mercer Island Center for the Arts (MICA) in the northwest corner of Mercerdale Park; provided, however, all of the environmental and traffic issues associated with this project can be adequately mitigated and addressed. Benson is committed to keeping Youth Theater NW on the Island. Performing arts and providing our youth enrichment opportunities and all of our residents with opportunities to enjoy a variety of cultural events are things that the Island values and that Benson values. Furthermore, MICA could help further the development of the south part of the Town Center by attracting new businesses and helping existing businesses. Attached is a link to more information about the status of the City’s review of the MICA project.
However, there have been recent developments that might result in moving the MICA project forward but at a site other than Mercerdale Park. On October 10, 2017, the City Manager wrote a letter to the MICA Board of Directors requesting that the MICA Board consider postponing its request that the City's Planning Commission review a possible amendment to the "P-Zone" where Mercerdale is located. That review was scheduled for October 18, 2017. If the Planning Commission recommends the adoption of the amendment to the City Council, and if the City Council approves the amendment, then it would permit for the possible construction of a performing arts center in that "P-Zone." On October 11, 2017, the MICA Board notified the City Manager that it would postpone its request for a review of the "P-Zone" amendment by the Planning Commission. Consequently, the City Manager and other members of the city staff and MICA representatives will be meeting to explore possible alternative sites for MICA's project. If an alternative site cannot be identified, then the review of the "P-Zone" amendment by the Planning Commission can be re-scheduled.
Island Emergency Preparedness
Benson will work on ensuring that the City services, volunteers and neighborhoods are well-coordinated in responding to a natural disaster.
Right now, there are about 39 neighborhoods that have organized themselves to some degree if an emergency arises. There are many more neighborhoods that have not begun the process. The City needs to think how it can encourage more neighborhoods to organize themselves. Here’s a link about how to Map Your Neighborhood.
Having helped in mapping his own neighborhood, Benson is committed during the next four years to make the City even more proactive in working with the residents to ensure that the City and community are better prepared for a natural disaster. The impact and aftermath of the recent hurricanes and earthquakes that struck Mexico underscore the need for all cities regardless of size to be prepared.
While the City has done some table-top exercises involving emergent situations, Benson supports a table-top exercise involving an earthquake and wants the City Manager to even consider a voluntary all Island earthquake drill to educate residents and to encourage neighborhoods to plan, prepare and organize.
If the Settlement Agreement with Sound Transit is signed in October and the litigation that the City commenced is dismissed, Benson is committed during the next four years to ensuring that the $10.1 million dollars from Sound Transit is leveraged to the fullest extent possible to maximize benefits to the Island. For instance, can some of the proceeds that are to be used for providing Island residents commuter parking be part of a transit oriented development in the Town Center that is through a public-private partnership?
Town Center Development
During the next four years, Benson wants the City to work more closely with the Mercer Island Chamber of Commerce in its efforts to attract new businesses to the Island and to help our existing businesses succeed. Since the Chamber has identified Town Center parking to be an issue, Benson supports the development of a comprehensive Town Center parking plan that works for residents and our local businesses and their customers.
In addition, Benson wants to explore the possibility of the City retaining the services of an economic development coordinator (perhaps sharing this position with other small cities) as a way to help increase the City’s other sources of revenue and to decrease its reliance on property taxes.
Review of Residential Development Standards
As stated above, the City Council adopted changes to the Island’s residential development standards on September 19, 2017. That does not end the City’s work in this area. During the next several years, the City will monitor the level and type of development that is occurring in the residential neighborhoods to see if the development that was hoped and planned for is happening or if we are encountering unintended consequences that need to be addressed.