City considers criteria for sale of surplus land

Last year, when the Tacoma City Council created the city’s 2005-2006 biennium budget, it looked to several revenue-generating and cost-cutting measures for closing the gap on a $29.6 million budget deficit. The moves included a cut in some benefits (e.g., food/travel expenses, freeze on cost-of-living allowances) for the mayor, city council, and city manager (savings: $97,716), as well as a reduction of services in the overall general government (savings: $2.1 million).

Another cost-saving move was the sale of city-owned land, which would add $250,000 to the budget. It’s a move that makes City Manager Jim Walton uncomfortable. “In the current budget, there’s too much of a reliance on the sale of surplus land,” he said. “As a city, that’s not where you want to be.”

Indeed, cash-strapped and dealing with a deficit, the city has looked to its surplus land as a quick source of revenue, without considering the long-term possibilities of the land, according to many critics inside City Hall, including several council members.

“During the budget crisis, we said, ‘Let’s sell off property,’” said Councilman Kevin Phelps. “That’s a dangerous road to go down. Instead of responding like that, the city should create a long-range vision for the property. It should establish a process for creating an analysis of each piece of property to decide if a sell makes sense.”

Phelps is leading an effort to create criteria that targets “balanced and thoughtful” decisions involving the sale, lease or donation of city-owned properties which have significant developmental potential.

Last week, Phelps led a group of city officials on a bus tour of city-owned property. A draft criteria for the sale or donation of developable, City-owned real estate was discussed Tuesday at the Tacoma Economic Development Committee meeting. That criteria focuses on the following areas:

— Whether such sale or donation would achieve or demonstrate strong City support for a community goal and/or meet a community need and/or result in community benefits;

— Whether such sale or donation would result in significant private, philanthropic and/or public sector investment (from sources other than the city);

— Whether such sale or donation would produce a sustainable positive gain economically and/or improve the quality of life for the community;

— Whether such sale or donation would stimulate directly or indirectly positive economic activity, including investment in private development;

— Whether the dedication of resources from the sale or long-term lease of this property could result in the City investing in another economic development project or in a long-term “economic development leverage fund” that would have greater strategic value to the City than other available alternatives;

— Whether such sale or donation would result in development that optimizes short and/or long-term revenue to the City of Tacoma;

— Whether such sale or donation would result in a development that positively alters the context of surrounding development, enhancing prospects for further development and transformation of all or a portion of the City;

— Whether such sale or donation would result in all or a portion of the property being retained and cared for as open space in a manner available for public enjoyment.

At Tuesday’s meeting, Councilwoman Julie Anderson supported the idea. She recommended the city consider what role surplus land sales play in the its long-term vision, rather than simply selling land to the highest bidder. “We need a vision not just on design, but on what kind of jobs and industry sectors we are trying to create,” she said.

The Economic Development Committee will develop the criteria further and continue to discuss this plan at future committee meetings.