By Jack Mayne

After months of discussions and debate, followed by many citizens backing its passage and some landlords opposed, the Burien City Council on Monday (Oct. 7) unanimously approved a new ordinance that establishes regulations “supporting the topic of increasing housing security, and to establish standards and enforcement mechanisms as they relate to rental housing.”

The new ordinance, which takes effect Oct. 15, “is the city’s intent to continue its long-term commitment to maintain vibrant and diverse neighborhoods within Burien,” adding that regulations “balance the needs of the landlord, tenant, and the city while creating a partnership to ensure safe, healthy, and thriving rental housing in Burien.”

The city says it recognizes that rentals are a “commercial venture where owners and landlords must evaluate risk, profit, and loss. Providing housing for Burien residents directly impacts quality of life at the most basic level, and therefore requires regulations to ensure that it is equitably undertaken.”

‘Very important step’
Deputy Mayor Austin Bell – who is not seeking reelection after a single term on the Council – said the measure was “an important step forward on how renters are treated in our community. There is still a lot of work that has to be done, but I am very proud of the work done by staff, that was done by our community.”

Councilmember Krystal Marx said she was glad “to see this finally coming into play … and looking forward to what else is missing to better protect the residents who are … paying taxes in the city and to keep them here in the city.”

Councilmember Nancy Tosta said it is a complicated ordinance that the city attorney said will take effect on Tuesday, Oct. 15, 2019. City Attorney Lisa Marshall (pictured, right) said the work to put the information on the city website and make it available will not be finished for some time, as it was “not appropriate” for the staff to work on the information until after the measure was approved by the City Council.

“You’re correct that we don’t have the ability to make sure that the policies are completed by Tuesday, but we can begin that work,” said Marshall.

‘Call me’
Tosta asked who, then, should people call if there is a problem?

City Manager Brian Wilson (pictured, left) said “they call me.”

Marshall said “it is the staff’s role and we will complete it.”

Still pressing because “I want the ordinance to succeed,” so she attempted to have the eviction with “just cause” set aside until city staff can have the processes in effect to make it work.

Marshall said the city will work to take the complicated legal document that is the rental housing ordinance into language the average citizen can understand, making it something that landlords and renters can use and support, obviating a need for city government enforcement.

Educate landlords
“Certainly that is our primary objective,” Marshall said, adding that a person who believed they are being improperly evicted can contact the city, then the city will contact the landlord and “provide education to that landlord.”

“There is a built-in incentive to the landlord to comply because if the landlord does not do so, and had violated just cause and the tenant chooses to stay, they will be unable to obtain an unlawful detainer later,” she said.

“While the process may be imperfect,” said Councilmember Pedro Olguin, “I think let’s move ahead with what we’ve got and we will figure out over time how to get the information out.”

City Manager Brian Wilson said the first thing city staff will do is an assessment “to see where we are, se what our experience level is, we will do everything we can to get information, work with our partners in the community and get that information out.” He said he would keep Council informed and request what adjustments that may be needed later.

‘Essential’ property tax increase
Wilson noted that the Council would hear about a proposed property tax increase of 1 percent, and he said he wanted “to reiterate that the funding and revenue that comes into the city for such expenses as police, public works, roads, parks increases annually at a rate greater than we receive from the property tax.” He said the 1 percent increase “will actually have a decrease in the overall rate of the tax. So, for example, in 2019 the medium home value of approximately $400,000 and the tax rate was $1.09 per thousand (dollars) of assessed valuation.”

“In 2020, our preliminary estimates are that the assessed valuation has gone up to $418,000 and that 1 percent tax rate will be at $1.04 (per $1,000 of valuation), actually reduce the rate,” Wilson said.

“This 1 percent property tax increase that is proposed is essential for our city to maintain our current level of services,” Wilson told the Council.

Utility tax increase?
The city manager referenced a postcard (pictured above) that was mailed out by the Southwest Suburban Sewer District to residents about a proposed 6 percent utility tax rate applied to the water and sewer district. Wilson said the sewer district sent a mailer “that was encouraging taxpayers to be involved” in the utility tax decision being considered by the city of Burien.

“We welcome citizen involvement in input regarding this proposed tax,” Wilson told the Council, adding the city utility tax has been in effect for many years and contributes to the various service the city officers to its residents. It is presently applied to cable bills, natural gas service and electric companies.

“As public utilities, it can be argued that water and sewer districts pay their fair share as well,” he said.

“It is unfortunate water and sewer district commissioners and staff are acting as advocates for city of Burien taxpayers in order to disguise their duplicative operations, service and delivery model,” he said.

The district is “attempting to impact negotiations on a potential franchise agreement to operate on city rights-of-way by sending flyers at significant public cost regarding a proposal to apply an established utility tax to water and sewer districts; the cost of which is approximately $4.41 according to the Southwest Suburban Sewer District or the equivalent of one latte per month,” the city manager said.

No franchise agreement
Wilson said there are six water and sewer districts serving the city, “each with entrenched elected officials, managers, staff, infrastructure, and operations inherently inefficient when considering the top tier salaries, benefits, and costs of each of their operations. Economies of scale are not achieved,” Wilson said, adding that the city “also has questions and concerns regarding the sustainability of their operations into the future and their ability to provide services commensurate with the city’s projected growth.”

The city manager said the city “will not relinquish our taxing authority in order to enter into a franchise agreement. The city does not have plans to implement both a franchise fee and utility tax” but Burien has expressed its willingness to resume negotiations “assuming our taxing authority is maintained.”

Wilson said “it is important for the city to ensure its long term sustainability and the provision of essential services.”

Against utility tax
During public comment time, several citizens, mostly older residents, complained about the added costs to their property tax bills.

Gary G. Coy (pictured, left), president or Water District 20, told the Council his water district “has been around for over 60 years” and feels it is important for citizens to understand “what is going on with the utility fee and the franchise fee.” He said that during a meeting in January it was decided there would be developed a fee agreement that is “presently being used in other districts … so these people sitting here have the opportunity to look out and say this what I have to put into my budget as I move forward.”

“The utility tax is a very targeted tax,” Coy said. “That tax turns around and targets the elderly, the less fortunate,” he said.

Raymond Brickell, a commissioner for Water District 49, said he “takes a little exception to the city manager’s comments about special purpose districts, We are not a for-profit utility like Puget Sound Energy, Seattle City Light, Comcast.” He said such districts impose not taxes and only ones would be those that “a city would try to impose on special purpose districts.”

The city’s move to a 6 percent Burien proposed utility tax applied to water and sewer districts “is definitely a burden to low and fixed income rate payers in the city of Burien,” said Brickell. “We don’t feel it’s fair,” and he said at a recent City Council candidate forum, four of the six candidates were against imposition of the utility tax.

Mike West, a commissioner of the Valley View Sewer District, said the proposed tax would “add up to a lot o money monthly and yearly for a lot of people who just can’t afford it.” He said he was opposed to one government (Burien) taking another government (sewer and water districts).

David Pukey said he was a Valley View Sewer rate payer and says he opposes any utility tax on his sewer rates because the money won’t help “me, in any way. That money won’t go to the district, it goes to the City of Burien, and because the citizens aren’t getting a chance to vote on that tax.” He noted also the city was getting additional money because his home value has increased.

New hires, assignments
New City Clerk Megan Gregor began her first day on Monday (Oct. 7). Gregor was formerly the Renton deputy city clerk, said city manager Wilson.

Current employee Cynthia Schaff is appointed to the new position of rental housing inspection coordinator and City Manager Brian Wilson said Schaff has many years experience as a paralegal handling housing issues. The Council were also introduced to new economic development specialist Lorraine Chachere.