Election Spotlight: Pierce County Executive

The Tacoma Daily Index, Exit 133, and KXOT-FM 91.7 have collaborated on a project to profile and interview each of...

EDITOR’S NOTE: The Tacoma Daily Index, Exit 133, and KXOT-FM 91.7 have collaborated on a project to profile and interview each of the four candidates currently running for Pierce County Executive. The interviews will appear on the Web site and in the print edition of the Index, on the Web at http://www.exit133.com , and on http://www.kxot.org .

The series began Sept. 11 with an interview with Tacoma City Councilmember Mike Lonergan. It continued Sept. 25 with Pierce County Auditor Pat McCarthy, and Oct. 9 with Pierce County Councilmember Calvin Goings. Today we conclude the series with Pierce County Councilmember Shawn Bunney.

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Most of Shawn Bunney’s professional career has involved work in county government. Shortly after graduating from the University of Puget Sound Law School in 1993, Bunney was hired as a staff attorney for the county council. In 2002, he ran for a seat on council and was elected. He was re-elected in 2006.

Over the past six years, he has represented eastern and southern Pierce County. He has also served as chair of the Regional Transportation Investment District (RTID) executive board, where he has been a strong advocate for more highways connecting rural residents with job centers in Pierce County.

This election year, Bunney is one of four candidates for Pierce County Executive. The others include Pierce County Auditor Pat McCarthy, Pierce County Councilmember Calvin Goings, and Tacoma City Councilmember Mike Lonergan. The top county seat is currently held by John W. Ladenburg, who is term-limited and currently running for Washington State Attorney General.

“[I want to] raise the quality of life and prosperity for citizens in Pierce County,” says Bunney, a Republican candidate. “It’s about decisions that enhance and make sense out of county government. It’s about decisions that bring healthy and safe communities. Those are the things I think are really important decisions to the future of Pierce County. They are decisions I want to help make and lead on.”

Bunney recently discussed his perspectives on a variety of issues this election year.

ON HIS EARLY CAREER IN PIERCE COUNTY GOVERNMENT

I attended the University of Puget Sound law school. When I was at the law school, the internship I chose to do was with the county council. In that role, I was the intern that drafted all land use appeal decisions. That was a great opportunity for a young man, a young attorney, to learn about all of the land use issues tied to Pierce County. When I graduated, I sought an appointment with the county and they gave me the job as the legal counsel to Pierce County Council. In that role I got a high level of understanding about the intricacies of public works and roads and storm-water. That involvement in county government led to credentials and experience and a reputation for getting things done that allowed me to run to be a Pierce County councilmember. I’ve used that experience over the last six years to work on key transportation issues [and] key quality of life issues as a county councilmember. That is the resume I bring to the table as I ask voters to move me to the next level as county executive.

ON HIS SUPPORT OF MORE HIGHWAYS IN PIERCE COUNTY

[One] effort I have led on is to get what I consider to be our ‘jobs highways’ built. I stepped up to lead the RTID, which was the ‘roads’ part of [last year’s] ‘roads and transit’ package. I believe here in Pierce County we have to get our jobs highways built. That’s our highway from 167, where it dead ends in a corn field in Puyallup, out to the Port of Tacoma. And Cross Base Highway, which would start a new corridor at Thorne Lane and go across 176th. Cross Base opens up the largest manufacturing and industrial lands left, not just here in Pierce County but in the entire Puget Sound region. For 167, it means 80,000 new jobs for working families here in Pierce County. Getting those jobs highways built and having jobs near homes has been the number one priority. I led on getting the roads package built and will continue to lead as my top priority to make sure these corridors get built. We have jobs for the working families near homes, and 30 percent of our work force doesn’t have to travel to King County, which not only is impractical, but it’s going to be as gas prices and new congestion make it nearly impossible to continue that trend. We need to create jobs near homes.

ON THE CURRENT ECONOMIC DOWNTURN’S IMPACT ON JOBS HIGHWAYS

As part of RTID, I was watching how some of the Seattle projects were getting analyzed and [the Washington State Department of Transportation] would produce a jobs analysis on what the Alaskan Way Viaduct would do if it got replaced. I pushed very hard to make sure WSDOT did the same kind of work on our project that they were doing on Seattle’s projects. The result of that was a study of the economic analysis of what Highway 167 meant. What they said was it would be 35,000 direct jobs — good-paying longshoremen jobs to handle the cargo of going from 4 million containers to 14 million containers through the Port of Tacoma over the next 15 years. The remainder of those jobs would be indirect jobs that would come as a result of that commerce and trade coming through the Puget Sound region. These are jobs that don’t automatically come here if we don’t build the infrastructure. They’ll end up in Prince Rupert, Canada or Long Beach, California, where communities are competing for the business. You look at long-term forecast versus short-term forecast. I do believe that our population will continue to expand and the demand for trade and goods will continue to occur within the region. We’re going to turn the corner soon on economic expansion in Pierce County and in the country, and I’ve been working hard to make sure Pierce County is prepared for that kind of economic expansion by putting in place economic stimulus incentives that we will be adopting as part of the 2009 budget. I am bullish on the future of Pierce County and our economy, and I think those jobs are there. If you look at the history of Pierce County and the forecasting of the state’s economy long-term, we are positioned very well in the state, in the region, and in the world being competitive and making the right kinds of decisions.

ON A $7 MILLION PIERCE COUNTY BUDGET SHORTFALL, AND THE CURRENT COUNTY EXECUTIVE’S BUDGET PROPOSAL

First of all, we have been preparing for an economic downturn for well over a year. County Council led on questioning some of the financial assumptions in the county government, building into our resolution asking the county executive to make certain priority decisions with regard to that budget. For the most part, I think the county executive has honored the council’s wishes with regard to ensuring public safety is our top priority. That we not risk the safety of families in the community as we downsize county government. I also think in the short run Mr. Ladenburg’s budget looks at low-fruit opportunities to downsize — eliminating open positions. I think as we move forward through our budget process, we’re going to have to be more thoughtful about where the next sets of cuts will occur. I think budgets are about priorities. We need to make sure those criminal justice priorities of keeping families safe stay at the top. [We need to m]ake sure that growing our economy through this recession — those kinds of investments stay in place. And I think you work backward from there and tighten the belt. I also think that like Boeing or other businesses, tightening the built is part of a natural and cyclical role, and county government should not fear the opportunity to be more efficient and effective. I think there are opportunities in downsizing county government. I think we need to make sure we are keeping taxes low and giving joe the plumber his money’s worth in regards to the taxes he saves. We have in Pierce County run county government in a fiscally conservative way. We do not carry a tremendous amount of debt compared to other local governments. We have a couple years of rainy day money in our fund balance that we’ll be able to use to keep body and whole together. It will be a question of how much to keep in savings for the future, and how many cuts we need to make. That will be the balancing decisions we’ll make in addition to efficiencies through performance auditing.

ON WHAT CHANGES HE WOULD LIKE TO SEE MADE TO THE CURRENT BUDGET PROPOSAL

We’re still refining that down. I think one change is that Ladenburg has recommended cutting some of the analysis functions for the performance audit office. I will be ensuring that goes back in. I also want to make sure that as we look across the board at eliminations of positions that we’re not weakening our ability to respond to the economic shortfall. These positions that are engineering and planning functions are going to be needed for growth in the future and need to be there. Even if they are open positions, make sure we’re not cutting positions we’re going to need for our economic future. With regard to adding things back in, I think one of our concerns — it’s not about adding things back in — it’s about what the next fiscal forecast looks like, which will be coming to us after the budget was prepared. We may need to roll up our sleeves and do more prioritization. I believe it’s not about adding things back in, but it’s making sure we have a contingency plan if less dollars are available than Mr. Ladenburg has proposed in the budget.

ON WHETHER THE COUNTY’S BUDGET AND REVENUE ARE BEHOLDEN TO THE NATIONAL ECONOMIC DOWNTURN

I think the shortfall comes from building permits, meaning what we actually take from our permitting process. It comes from sales tax, which is a part of building and construction. And a few other sources like real estate excise tax, which, if real estate isn’t selling, the money isn’t there. The question is what do we do to spur the economy. About six months before it became a national issue in regard to banking, I started to look at and talk to key business leaders about what they saw coming over the horizon, and asked our economic development department to put together a strategy by which we could stimulate the economy in a different paradigm of banking. What they came back and told us was there are a number of barriers to businesses expanding and new businesses coming here. Some of these issues are tied to the state, and some are tied locally. The business and occupation tax in the state is a difficult obstacle for new businesses when they can go to places that aren’t as tax-heavy. But most importantly at the local level, the front-loaded costs of getting up and running are very difficult for new businesses. With the shrinking of money supply, the lack of availability of banks to be able to give cash to get into business, that will be crippling if we don’t do something to help businesses get started and expand here in Pierce County. My proposal is to take a lot of the front-loaded costs and stretch those payments over time, while still protecting taxpayers through bonding and other financial assurances that the investments will occur in the sewer systems and road systems. We have system development charges that we may not need the money for half a decade. Spread those costs over time. Secondly, there’s a lot of work that’s been done on developing proposals that are in the pipeline in Pierce County. Making sure those don’t just fall off the table because those permits expire in a stagnant economy is fair. The work that’s been done, such as environmental analysis, we need to make sure those folks continue when the economy moves forward to be able to do their projects. So extending the life of those permits is part of my economic stimulus package.

ON WHETHER HE SUPPORTS THE $18 BILLION SOUND TRANSIT PROPOSITION

I was a huge advocate of the roads and transit package, which included a large investment in transit and also brought light rail down to Tacoma. Today I don’t believe the package before the people has the same balance. I think before we invest in half a cent of sales tax for transit, we need to understand how we are going to fund the jobs highways that get jobs near homes. Transit, while extraordinarily important to the future of an urbanized region, doesn’t get the jobs to people here at home that I think are the most important. We shouldn’t have to invest in a transit system that transports 30 or more percent of our population to King County while our jobs are being stagnant here in Pierce County. The Legislature — the Seattle-centric Legislature — told RTID, told me as chairman, that we would not go to the ballot this year. I think until we get that issue reconciled and get clear on how we are going to get our jobs highways investments done, I do not support a half-cent sales tax out of Pierce County to support projects that don’t really benefit job creation here in Pierce County. My gut is it’s not going to pass. My gut also is this is a bad time to be asking working families, who are already strapped, for more money out of their wallets without showing where that’s going to make an economic return for families in Pierce County. Over half of the population lives south of State Route 512 and there’s nothing in the package that actually provides either congestion relief or transit alternatives for where a huge amount of the population resides in Pierce County. Roads and transit working together provided a little more balance for what I consider to be our top congestion and transportation needs in Pierce County. We haven’t had the infusion of cash that King County has had over the last decade and a half because of the Legislature and our Congress putting all of our dollars into their community.

ON CHALLENGES FACING PIERCE COUNTY’S CRIMINAL JUSTICE SYSTEM

Seventy-five cents out of every dollar of general tax money that is given to the county goes to the criminal justice system. We need and have focused on creating greater levels of efficiencies within that whole system. There’s a lot of people out there with outstanding warrants that we need to make sure they come into the system and serve their debt to society. That end needs to be worked stronger. Within the court system, courts have a lot to do with the population of the jail. A large population of the people waiting in jail are waiting for their constitutional right to a speedy trial. We need to make sure they get that speedy trial. By getting them a speedy trial, it means we get them out of the jail faster and we keep capacity in the jail. There’s been a focus on my watch to make sure we look at Superior Court and the work that they do to process cases. One of the things we found was a propensity on the part of judges, prosecutors, and public defenders to ask for too many continuances, which become very expensive both in the operation of the court and in the fact that we have too many people in the jail. Then you get down to the operation of the jail itself. Every single year I’ve been on the county council, our top priority has been to make sure we add more corrections officers and more capacity into the jail, and that’s something we need to continue to do to make sure we are holding criminals, make sure they are serving their debt to society, and that we are keeping people safe. When you look at that entire system, the need is to work various components of the system: The sheriff’s department, making sure they have the resources to bring people in; the court system, to make sure it’s working efficiently and giving them their constitutional rights to a speedy trial, but also making sure people are not unduly being held in jail and costing tax payers thousands if not millions of dollars; and making sure the jail itself is adequately staffed to handle the capacity. You’re seeing some of the work that was already done, which was to make sure Superior Court fully implement its performance audit. What it showed was that the judges themselves did not work efficiently together. Even within the 2009 budget, we’ll be looking at provisos and other tools to make sure that part of the process works. We also are not reducing the number of corrections officers we currently have on staff today. We need to work to retain more corrections officers. In an environment where law enforcement officers are also serving in the military and other places, there’s a lot of competition for those corrections officers. I think my administration would do a better job of providing incentives for those corrections officers to come work in Pierce County. That has been a handicap for us — keeping police officers and corrections officers here in Pierce County.

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This feature also appears on Exit 133. For an online discussion of this story, and a link to an audio interview with Bunney, visit http://www.exit133.com .

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