Council hears state of neighborhoods: Concerns raised over reduction in Neighborhood Council liaison services

Fifteen years ago, city officials and residents hosted a community summit at the University of Puget Sound designed to find solutions to problems that had overrun Tacoma neighborhoods — problems such as violent crime, illegal drug activity, derelict property, and abandoned vehicles.

That summit resulted in the formation of the Neighborhood Council, which was created to serve as an advisory body to city government on matters concerning the general health, safety and welfare of neighborhoods.

Though it had similarities and ties to the United Neighbors of Tacoma, it was a new program that represented the city’s eight districts and shared resources with the Community Council — a non-profit organization that serves as a forum for discussion of issues related to neighborhood planning.

Together, the two councils would hold the City Council accountable for neighborhood conditions.

“Many people, including some city officials, referred to it as a forum for malcontents,” recalled Mayor Bill Baarsma during Tuesday’s City Council study session, which focused on the state of Tacoma’s neighborhoods.

Since that time, however, the City Council has viewed the Neighborhood Council as an important way to keep an ear to the ground on neighborhood concerns.

“The Neighborhood Council provides intimate detail and texture to public policy,” said Councilwoman Julie Anderson.

At Tuesday’s study session, Neighborhood Council representatives reported on the state of their neighborhoods.

“The state of our neighborhoods vary from neighborhood to neighborhood,” said Elton Gatewood, Neighborhood Council Coordinator. “A tremendous partnership has been established between citizens and government. Opportunities for citizen involvement and two-way communication has increased. But there also needs to be a balance of available resources to address physical improvements in residential neighborhoods.”

Indeed, nearly all of the Neighborhood Council representatives reported the impact of a cut in city services due to the 2005-2006 budget. In that budget, Neighborhood Council support was reduced from $80,000 to $63,000, resulting in the reduction of planning and development services through a liaison with the Economic Development Department.

“We are cautious about the future because of funding,” said North End representative Jonathan Phillips. “We do need support services from the city. We need some channel like that available to keep the communication open.”

“We’re unhappy the budget was cut,” said Northeast Tacoma representative Marion Weed. “We’re the freebies. We’re saving you lots of money. For you to cut fifteen-thousand dollars a year — it’s a pittance to you, but huge to us.”
Councilman Mike Lonergan countered that during budget planning, there was a “willingness” on the part of Neighborhood Council representatives to be more directly involved with the city — hence, the cut in funds. But Weed and other Neighborhood Council representatives claimed the only other alternative called for cutting the funding altogether.

Still, several Neighborhood Council representatives reported an increase in the use of innovative grants for improvements to parks, bus shelters, and streets. “We’re learning the skills to leverage those dollars,” said Hayes Alexander, the newly-elected Community Council Chair.

South End representative Fred Berkshire reported, “Our community is in trouble.” He cited the persistent problems of gangs, drug use and vandalism. But he also reported that the community recently removed 197 drug-use houses. Additionally, the South End has seen a spike in Neighborhood Block Watch participation.

Central representative Steve Apling expressed concerns over the increasing number of social service organizations in the neighborhood. “There’s a dumping of social services in the central area,” he said. “These agencies deal with high-risk populations, and we’re just about maxed out.”

New Tacoma representative Bill Garl had the most positive report. He cited the redevelopment of residential housing downtown as a major component of making urban revitalization complete. “As someone born and raise in Tacoma,” Garl said, “I watched the demise and now the rebirth of this city. I never thought I would see that in my lifetime.”