Mayor Jimmy Matta addresses an audience of about 100 Monday night at Highline United Methodist Church.
Half of the candidates running for election to Burien City Council fielded questions Monday evening (July 26, 2021) in front of roughly 100 people packed into Highline United Methodist Church.
Just a week before the Aug. 3 primary election, seven of the 14 candidates vying for four city council seats – including Position No. 1 candidate Hugo Garcia, Position No. 3 candidates Jimmy Matta and Charles Schaefer, Position No. 5 candidates Georgette Reyes and Sarah Moore, and Position No. 7 candidates Krystal Marx and John White – did their best to answer audience-submitted questions within a one-minute time limit.
Topics ranged from affordable housing, public safety, homelessness and youth issues to economic development, transportation, arts and infrastructure. The candidates were even asked their thoughts on property taxes, Burien’s status as a sanctuary city and critical race theory in public schools.
A full video recording of the forum, produced by The B-Town Blog, is available below (running time 1-hour, 28-minutes):
Asked what policies the candidates would support to boost Burien’s housing supply, specifically affordable housing, Deputy Mayor Krystal Marx lauded the city’s Affordable Housing Demonstration Program while warning that gentrification threatens to displace existing residents. John White discussed the program’s stated goal of identifying barriers to developing affordable housing but did not say whether he supports the program or any other specific policy.
Sarah Moore suggested allowing greater density in some areas zoned for single-family housing but cautioned that with greater density comes greater infrastructure needs.
“Making affordable housing means upgrading our city so that neighborhoods can sustain themselves,” Moore said.
Fellow Position No. 5 candidate Georgette Reyes said she looked into purchasing property in Burien to develop rental housing but was dissuaded after learning she “could only do it for seniors,” which she said was cost prohibitive.
“We need to be able to build for anyone, regular families, not just a specific demographic of people,” Reyes said.
Position No. 3 candidate Charles Schaefer proposed making the Affordable Housing Demonstration Program permanent and echoed Moore in calling for zoning changes that would allow greater density. Touting actions taken during his first term, Mayor Jimmy Matta said he wants affordable housing for college students, young workers, retirees and the mentally ill.
“We’ve expanded ADUs, we’ve made sure we had a Mary’s Place in our community to help those unhoused people who find themselves on the streets and we’ve passed the DESC here in the city of Burien,” Matta said.
Hugo Garcia, who said he has lived in a duplex with his brother for the past 15 years, said creating more housing is the key to achieving affordability. He also said strengthening tenants’ rights prevents evictions and preserves affordability.
“We have a goal of building 144 units a year of housing just to meet our goals as a city within King County,” said Garcia, who is a member of the city’s planning commission.
Guns and gangs
Asked how the candidates would deal with gang activity, guns and homelessness in Burien, Moore pointed out that homelessness is “such a different public safety issue than helping youth” who might turn to guns and gangs. Moore said young people need hope, opportunities, mentors, positive peer groups and – crediting fellow candidate Reyes – more after-school programs.
Burien needs “more after-school activities for the kids to be engaged in that positive way instead of being home alone and making gangs and finding the wrong kind of people,” Reyes said.
Schaefer agreed with the need for more youth programming, adding that young people also need more and better spaces to engage in positive activities.
“We need to be intentional about our city and how it’s designed, designed to have opportunities for youth,” Schaefer said.
Matta decried the fatal shooting three years ago of Elizabeth Juarez over gang graffiti, saying “there’s no reason why we should have lost a 13-year-old.
“We’ll lead with services in this city,” he said, “but we’re also not going to allow ourselves to be taken advantage of by career criminals.”
The $3.7 million budgeted for parks, recreation and cultural services in the city is dwarfed by the $13 million budgeted for police services, Garcia said, proposing greater investment in the city’s 350 acres of parks as well as programs such as CHOOSE 180 and Feeding El Pueblo, along with educational opportunities and an entrepreneurship program to teach youth about running small businesses.
White suggested finding another $3 million for police in order to speed up call response times and said the city’s contract with the King County Sheriff’s Office is overdue for renegotiation. Marx said the solution to gang activity and gun violence lies in addressing root causes by strengthening families, partnering with schools and working regionally.
“If you’re not addressing the root causes of what’s leading to crimes that involve guns, leading to gang-involved crimes,” Marx said, “then what you’re doing is just repeating a cycle of arrest-offend-arrest-offend, and it’s breaking apart our families.”
Asked how the candidates planned to improved public transportation, Garcia said he’s got a head start as a planning commissioner preparing for a potential light-rail route through Burien.
“We’re laying the foundation with our zoning and land use,” Garcia said. “I want to make sure that not only does transit improve but that people are not displaced by transit improvements.”
White said he would focus on adding more sidewalks throughout the city and said he would “push heavily” for a light -rail expansion because it would “bring economic value to Burien.”
Marx, who works in Seattle and whose children attend church in Bellevue, said she looks at transportation as a regional issue requiring partnerships to make possible projects such as the RapidRide H Line, which will serve the Ambaum Boulevard corridor and provide more frequent and reliable service to downtown Seattle than the existing Route 120.
“I was partnering with King County and saying, ‘yes, we do want you to invest in Burien,’ and part of that included sidewalks,” Marx said, “because I do agree with what John said.”
As central Burien grows in population density, Reyes said, the area will need new bus routes, particularly running east-west.
“There’s people that have to take like three buses in order to get to their house because there’s not one bus that will run down 128th or 136th,” Reyes said.
Moore agreed that east-west public transit is sorely lacking in Burien. Moore also said that adding more express routes to downtown Seattle could boost public appetite for transit because “one of the best incentives to get people on buses is to make them timely and fast and efficient.”
Schaefer agreed with boosting express routes and said the focus locally should be on reliable routes on “our high-density commercial, our multi-family residential transit corridors.” Matta said he wants to improve transit access for elderly residents and people with disabilities.
“Some of these individuals have no families,” Matta said of the city’s senior population. “It’s sad to hear, ‘Mayor, we feel like we’re in a jail here. We can’t go to the doctor, we can’t go to the farmers market.’”
Asked what kind of funding the candidates would devote to the arts, White suggested the demolished Burien Annex buildings, which previously housed the Burien Actors Theatre, should be replaced with a 250-seat, multi-use theater.
“It can be done,” White said. “I know as a business person that I believe I can organize and get the funding for that theater.”
Marx said the city needs to bring arts to all corners of the city beyond downtown, from Boulevard Park to Seahurst. She also suggested partnering with schools on youth art programs and working to ensure public art is culturally appropriate and inclusive.
Noting that many local artists have been out of work during the pandemic, Garcia called the arts an economic driver and urged reinvestment as a community, particularly as Burien’s state-certified Creative District ramps up.
Matta lauded a “young Latino farmworker who is now singing classical music” and said arts programming can ensure “our children don’t end up either in prison, dead on the streets or overdosed on drugs.”
Schaefer agreed and said cities designed around public art displays are more walkable and pedestrian friendly, adding that “the more people who are out there, the harder it is to get away with committing a crime.”
Moore, too, said she would like to see more public artwork – such as uniquely decorated utility boxes – that is “something you can see when you’re out in the community.” She also said she likes the idea of an outdoor amphitheater that could host a variety of staged performances.
Reyes said young people need “a place where they can focus, where they can show what they can do, so they can be recognized, so they can feel better about themselves.”
Asked what the candidates think of propositions that raise property taxes, Schaefer called it a “very regressive tax” that “hurts the poor a lot more in proportion to their income” and makes it that much tougher for many people to afford a home.
“We really need to work with our state legislative delegation as a city to look at more progressive ways of generating revenue,” Schaefer said.
As a business owner, Matta said he often laments taxes but also understands their necessity, saying that without taxes, “we cannot have the things we need that are vital to our communities.”
Similarly, White spoke about taxes generally, saying “the answer isn’t just keep taxing and taxing.” However, as an alternative to raising property taxes, White suggested Burien be more like Seatac, Tukwila and Des Moines by hosting hotels that would pay lodging taxes.
“They’ve got hotels and motels that are causing them to swim in available funds,” White said.
Marx echoed Schaefer regarding the regressive nature of property taxes and the need to lobby state legislative leaders, but she also emphasized the need to coordinate with fellow south King County cities “to bring these issues forward as a collective voice.”
Moore agreed with Schaefer and Marx, adding that she’s heard from Burienites “who feel they are being priced out of their homes by property taxes.” Reyes also agreed that such taxes hurt low-income people and retirees on fixed incomes the most, and she echoed White in saying that a new revenue source is the key.
Garcia said he, too, wants seniors to be able to age in place without fear of losing their homes. He said he would focus on boosting sales tax revenue in order to reduce reliance on property taxes.
“When we are able to become an entrepreneurship-driven city and have more small businesses in other parts outside of the core,” Garcia said, “that sales tax revenue will supplement our property taxes so we don’t have to depend so much on property taxes.”
Helping those who are homeless
Asked how the candidates would help those experiencing homelessness, Marx said it’s beyond time Burien opened a day shelter.
“This is not going to fix homelessness,” Marx said, “but it does provide a place for folks to be throughout the day, instead of congregating at our library, where we can then meet with them and talk with them about what services might be available to move them into housing.”
White proposed developing a homelessness plan informed by a “stakeholders’ wheel” including churches and “everyone else that’s involved in wanting to help the homeless.” Marx pointed out that Burien already has something similar to a stakeholders’ wheel focused on homelessness in the Ecumenical Leadership Circle.
After launching the Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD) program in White Center, Garcia said he wants to see it expanded in Burien. He said he also wants to develop more housing and create a job program that would pay people experiencing homelessness to clean up litter at city parks.
Reyes said she wants to see those experiencing homelessness reunited with their families so they might feel more supported and “willing to get the help they need, whether it’s mental or drug addiction help.”
As a manager for the past eight months at a COVID-19 isolation quarantine facility for people experiencing homelessness, Moore said she has seen how being housed – even temporarily – can stabilize people. She also said she would push for emergency cooling and warming shelters as climate change continues to drive extreme weather events.
Matta said he doesn’t have all the answers but said he knows “together we can come up with it” because “we’re talking about human beings.”
Schaefer said homelessness is personal to him because he interacts with the homeless community through his volunteer work at Transform Burien. He said the Housing First approach provides the stability needed to address mental health and substance use issues, but also that it boosts public safety.
“Our unhoused people living on the street are at risk for crime,” Schaefer said. “They can’t go home and lock their door at night.”
Critical race theory
When asked how the candidates felt about critical race theory being taught in schools, none opposed it.
“I’m 65 years old and everything I learned in grade school and high school is lacking, right,” White posited. “I don’t know enough about this theory thing, but I do know what we were taught was not correct.”
As a mother with children in the Highline School District, Marx said she could not be more supportive, saying it’s also important that such curriculum be led by people from minority communities with unique historical experiences.
Growing up as an immigrant himself, Garcia said he did not learn much about his own history and culture at school.
“There was no ethnic studies, and that impacts whether you reach out to gangs because those groups can give you a sense of belonging,” Garcia said.
Matta echoed that sentiment, saying his grade-school teachers did not know enough about Latin-American history to teach him about his Guatemalan heritage. He applauded the recent openings of the Casa Italiana cultural center, the Muslim American Youth Foundation youth center and the Latino Civic Alliance’s community center.
Schools are meant to educate, Schaefer said, and students learn best when they’re exposed to and forced to evaluate different ideas. “That’s called critical thinking,” he said.
Reyes said history should be taught from a variety of perspectives, while Moore said it’s important to acknowledge our country’s history of colonization and enslavement of African people.
“Understanding that history really happened is powerful, it’s painful and it’s ultimately empowering,” Moore said.
Asked how the candidates would address the many infrastructure issues in Burien, Marx said her first priority is securing a public works and maintenance facility.
“Our public works department has been operating out of shipping containers for a few years since we lost a building for them to work out of,” Marx said, noting that the city is partnering with the Highline School District and has already set aside $7.5 million but still needs one more funding partner. “So it’s a matter of finding that last missing piece.”
As an inventor and builder of piledriving machines, White said he would bring his “business skills and record of generating revenue” to bear on the city’s infrastructure needs. Reyes agreed with White that a business mindset is the ticket to funding infrastructure improvements.
“I can’t tell you where to get money because I don’t really know,” Reyes said. “All I know is if we all work together, we’re going to find out.”
The first step, Moore said, is prioritizing Burien’s infrastructure needs. Then, the city can explore grant opportunities through partnerships as well as collect impact fees from new businesses to fund nearby sidewalks and other infrastructure improvements.
Schaefer said he agrees that a maintenance facility is a priority and that grants are key, though he cautioned that projects must be compelling to whichever entity is providing the grant.
“We need to identify what other government agencies are after, what they might be interested in partnering on and how we can make it benefit Burien,” Schaefer said.
Matta said some $10.8 million in American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funding will go a long way toward addressing the city’s infrastructure needs, whether it be constructing sidewalks, repaving streets or shifting away from septic tanks.
“We’re going to need your voices, your views, your perspective to make sure that we spend it wisely as a one-time investment,” Matta said.
Garcia said his plan for generating revenue revolves around creating more businesses that contribute to sales tax revenues, and he believes the city’s ARPA funds should be used to create a revolving loan fund to finance and accelerate entrepreneurship.
“We have to create more revenues, and a small-business sales tax is going to be one of the ways to do it,” Garcia said, noting that the city is spending $336,000 on public works this year. “That’s just not enough.”
Asked whether the candidates support Burien continuing to be a sanctuary city, all said they do while both Moore and Garcia said that particular immigration issue inspired them to become more active in city affairs.
“If we were not welcome here,” Garcia said, “my brother who is a teacher at Hazel Valley wouldn’t be here, my other brother who is a director on the Highline School Board would not be here, and I, as an economic development manager serving small businesses one on one, would not be here.”
Marx said Burien should be advocating for neighboring cities to adopt welcoming-city resolutions, saying “we are doing a disservice to our community if we only focus on where our borders are without advocating for other cities to step up, as well.” White said it’s important that everyone feels they can “report crime without becoming the crime.”
Schaefer echoed that, saying many people have expressed discomfort or apprehension in calling police, leading him to propose a public safety advisory committee made up of people with differing experiences with police to recommend ways to improve policing.
With 11 million undocumented workers in the U.S., Matta said it’s beyond time for Congress to “fix this broken immigration system.” Matta defended the city’s resolution, saying no one should be afraid to call the police.
“This does not say we are not going to go after violent criminals,” Matta said, “this says that the woman or child who is being abused or neglected can pick up the phone and know that they’re not going to have to deal with Immigration.”
Role in regional homelessness crisis
Asked what the candidates believe Burien’s role is in addressing the regional homelessness crisis, Reyes said the city has a duty to help people experiencing homelessness, to have compassion, to find out what their individual needs are and to build housing they can afford.
Building housing elsewhere for those experiencing homelessness makes it harder for those who need that housing to accept it and can disconnect them from their communities when they do, Moore said.
“I think solutions need to be local but they need to be coordinated regionally because this is as a regional problem,” Moore said.
Homelessness is driven by a lack of housing, Garcia said, and all cities in the Puget Sound region, not just Seattle or Burien, need to work aggressively to create more housing.
With the Downtown Emergency Service Center’s (DESC) permanent supportive housing project and the city’s plan to establish a crisis response team, Burien is establishing itself as a leader in the region by taking action locally, Matta said.
Schaefer said he finds odd a concern of some Burien residents that people will come to Burien’s DESC housing facility to receive services “given how many people from Burien we have sent other places because that’s where the services can be provided.
“If you’re in Burien, you’re one of ours,” Schaefer said, “and I want us to take care of you.”
White said he’s not opposed to the DESC, just its proposed location, which he suggested will not have room for mental health services.
“A lot of the safety issues that we’re having is not dealing with someone who may be taking some drugs or alcohol,” White said, “but people who are serious mental health screaming at you and there’s no way you can talk to them.”
Marx, who said she experienced homelessness firsthand as an 8-year-old, pointed out that the DESC’s project will have mental health services, as well as substance use services, job services and education services. Marx also said Burien must work regionally because it has been going it alone for too long – since 1993, she said, when the city was founded partly on the premise of not accepting more affordable housing from King County.
“Where that has gotten us is where we are now,” Marx said, “where people are balking at the idea of bringing in permanent supportive housing because we don’t want people from outside of Burien here.”