Through our extensive interviews with Mayor Michael Courts, we have learned a great deal about the successes of the people of Dupont and it's government. This interview with Mayor Courts highlights those successes.
Dave Maestas: Mayor Courts, we have covered a lot of material in our interviews. As you approach the end of your first term in office can you summarize what you consider the most important accomplishments of your administration?
Mayor Courts: Dave, I hope what I am doing is summarizing the end of my first term as Mayor, because there is still much work to be done. When I became Mayor in 2016, I was following my close friend Mayor Michael Grayum, whom I had worked closely with while I was a City Councilmember. During the years 2012-15, Mayor Grayum and Council worked to begin the City’s recovery from the Great Recession. We laid a foundation of financial practices and policies that set the conditions for my term as Mayor. During my first four years, like my predecessor, I have worked closely with Council to advance our City but have also had the opportunity to address; some quality of life issues, work long-term issues within the City, improve the quality of our governance and demonstrate leadership during crisis. These are some of the issues that we managed successfully and I will review each:
- Memorialization of Center Drive as MSG (Ret) Wilburn K. Ross (MoH) Memorial Blvd
- Off-Leash Area (Dog Park) in Powder Works Park
- Street Trees and Sidewalk Restoration
- Old Fort Lake area development of a Sub-area plan, New Zoning and Development Regulations
- Negotiations with Amazon moving truck traffic off Center Drive onto Wharf Road, away from Edmond Village
- Emergency Response during the Amtrak derailment
- City Staff Hiring’s and Professionalism
- Public Safety upgrades in staff and equipment
- Maintenance and upgrading our Parks and trail system
- Biennial (2 year) City budget
- Council Committees (Public Works and Planning, Public Safety and Finance and Governance)
- Bond for a new Public Works Building and other PW projects:
- Secured funding for expansion of DuPont-Steilacoom Road
One of my first efforts was the memorialization of Center Drive as MSG (Ret) Wilburn K. Ross (MoH) Memorial Blvd.This was a small and inexpensive gesture, but I think an important one. MSG Ross was one of DuPont’s favorite sons and spent most of his life as a resident here. It was an honor for all of us to know him and to share a community with him. By act of Council we made the action official, we had two signs prepared and then conducted a simple ceremony with his family and Rep Denny Heck. This simple act serves to recognize a great man and National Treasure who made our city his home.
Shortly into my term we established the Off-Leash Area (Dog Park) in Powder Works Park. Through great efforts by the Parks Agency and the newly formed, Friends of the Off-Leash Area, we raised $30,000 in private donations and the City contributed the remaining $12,000, identified appropriate land and went ahead and established it. The Boy Scouts and Friends of the Off-Leash Area did a tremendous job of creating the entrance way with personalized pavers. This was a much-needed addition to our City and continues to get used frequently. It shows what is possible when citizens organize and participate in fundraising towards desired amenities. In my campaigning throughout the city, I have found very few homes without a dog or two, so I think this feature was well worth the effort and cost.
Street Trees and Sidewalk Restoration: While serving on Council I worked with council members Mike Gorski and Andy Estep along with Public Works in an ad hoc committee to develop sidewalk standards for the City. It is hard to begin the task of restoring your sidewalks if you do not have a clear, measurable set of standards of what right looks like. Simultaneously the tree board under the leadership of Kyle McCreary and Mike Farley began researching the appropriate trees for use in the street strips. Once these tasks were completed, the City funded the complete restoration of one block on Palisades as a test to determine the extent of the issues we were facing and to establish a cost baseline for the rest of the City. Although the result was excellent, the project cost was staggering. To re-baseline the City, to remove all known street tree issues and repair all sidewalks was going to cost an estimated $13.5 million dollars. That simply was more than we could ever hope to raise for this effort and the project 'went on the shelf.' In my first year as Mayor, one of our residents presented us with the idea of using some simple, yet elegant technology called the “Big Sidewalk Sucker” to allow us to make repairs beneath a sidewalk panel without having to break it up. Although skeptical, we did some research and found another City in Washington, Longview, that used this piece of equipment and found it was a very effective and efficient way to proceed. With this information in hand, we recalculated the cost if we used the new equipment and the Tree Board established the “Neighborwoods” program to grow our own trees and were able to reduce the total cost from $13.5 million to $2.5 million. Although a huge savings, we still were looking at a $2.5 million cost that we did not have available. The final key came when we put our heads together and got confirmation on the idea that street trees are an integral part of the City’s storm water system. This was important because the Storm Water Reserve fund was sitting at $2.5 million. Our next step was to work with some outside experts and determine the safe level for this reserve fund and determined that maintaining a minimum balance of $1.0 million was enough to address any foreseeable catastrophic failures in our Storm Water infrastructure. With this information in hand, Public Works developed a plan for personnel, equipment and time to correct the long-standing issue of our street trees damaging our sidewalks. We are now in our 3rd year of this program and working to complete the worst portions of the City, the Palisade village area. Over the next two years, our team will continue through the rest of the City repairing and restoring the sidewalks and street trees. We will retain a capability at the end of the program to address problems as they appear and see if retaining a nursery is a practical way to maintain our street trees over time. This has been an amazing program and was featured last year at the Association of Washington Cities annual conference as a “best practice.” We continue to have cities throughout the State contact us about the program. This is certainly one of the efforts I am most proud of.
Old Fort Lake area development of a Sub-area plan, new zoning and Development Regulations: Parallel to the street tree and sidewalk restoration, we spent two years in a difficult sometimes contentious process to conduct a complete relook of uses for the Old Fort Lake area. The existing Development Agreement with the owner expired in 2016, allowing us to do this holistic relook of how this land should be used. This included the development of a Sub-area plan, new zoning and development regulations to tailor any future development to something that will meet the needs/wants of the community and be economically viable. I remain committed to the idea that the remaining development in DuPont, besides satisfying our state mandated 'Growth Management Act' requirements, balances economic vitality, job development, quality of life, historic and environmental preservation/restoration. That is a lot to balance, but I think we did a good job, with lots of public participation and hard work by our staff, Planning Commission and City Council. We have a good plan now, but we are having discussions that may be enable us to go further with it and focus the potential future growth even more. I have directed this same process be undertaken in 2020 for the future Sequalitchew Village area. I believe it is important for us, the City of DuPont, to lead development not just follow it. For much of the early part of the Northwest Landing development, the Developer was the lead agent. I believe the people of Dupont and our leadership are now capable of serving in that role.
Another effort that has been a significant improvement for the residents of Edmond Village, as well as the rest of the City, was the three year negotiation with Amazon on a variety of issues that resulted in Amazon building a road at the rear of their facility and establishing Wharf Road as the primary entry/exit point for trucks. Although Center Drive was built as a four lane, deep bed road for commercial traffic when it was designed and constructed, Edmond Village was planned to be an office park supporting the Intel Campus. With Edmond Village now a housing area, it was important for us to take steps to reduce the commercial use of that roadway.
One of the moments I was most proud of our City during my first term was the Amtrak derailment in December 2017. This was a tragedy that was completely avoidable and is a great failure on behalf of our rail industry, but it was a great moment for DuPont. When the derailment of train 501 occurred at the beginning of the work day on 18 December 2017, our small City immediately became the center of National attention. Our first responders immediately dispatched to the scene and our police and firefighters were the very first to begin providing rescue, first aid and control of the scene. City Administrator Ted Danek and I gathered the staff and assessed the situation and assigned tasks. We prepared our City’s facilities to serve as triage, holding areas and meeting places for victims, responders and press. It quickly became apparent that I-5 was going to be closed for an extended period and we began emergency measures to route traffic around DuPont to keep our internal roads and streets open. Cooperation with our partners at JBLM, Steilacoom, Lakewood, Pierce County and the State was superb. Our local businesses, whether locally owned or national franchises immediately offered whatever support they could. Our residents began volunteering by the dozens as well as churches, Boy Scouts, Veterans Groups, Lions. The quality of our community was on display for the entire nation to see for these few days. We have been identified nationally, by our Governor and County Executive as a model of how a community should respond to a disaster. We have also learned a lot from this event and have captured those lessons for future events, large and small. In many ways, this was our finest hour.
City Staff hiring’s and Professionalism: Some of the actions I have taken, directed or participated in may seem small, but they have provided great benefit to our City. During the transition from Mayor Grayum to myself, we cooperated in an action to hire an on-staff attorney. Previously we had received legal support from a firm on retainer. It became apparent, over time, the complexity of the legal challenges facing a growing city required full-time legal counsel. To that end, we hired Mr. Gordon Karg as our full-time staff attorney. His service and counsel have been indispensable to our City as we daily tackle a range of issues from development to public records requests to labor related that absolutely require the good, objective legal input of a committed attorney. The second addition to our City Staff was a Communications Coordinator, Ms. Erin Gowenlock. A recent communications graduate and DuPont resident, Erin joined us part-time and her job has grown to one that is necessary. One of her first tasks was dealing with the train derailment and she handled that with her trademark humor, energy and competence. Our ability to communicate important information about our City to the audience inside and outside is an essential component to good governance and Erin is at the very center of it. She is an integral part of our leadership team. From our active social media presence, to my bi-monthly utility letters, dealing with the press, production of our quarterly recreation guide and any other information requirements, Erin has been a highly valued addition to our staff. Over my tenure, I have had the privilege of recruiting and hiring nearly all the leadership positions within the City Staff. My goal has been to professionalize our team and over time build some depth to that team. We often find ourselves trapped by the urgent over the important. As our financial resources continue to improve, my goal is to add enough depth to our key staff that we can readily address day to day requirements while simultaneously projecting the City into the future and doing more long-range planning. Ultimately the goal of the City staff, Elected Officials, Employees, and Appointed Positions is to provide the highest quality possible municipal services and governance for the best value. I am constantly reminding myself that every penny we spend is someone’s hard earned money and we have an obligation to ensure the taxpayer gets best possible value for that spending.
Our public safety has continued to improve over the past four years, albeit not as rapidly as I would have liked, but we have continued our growth within the construct of a conservative fiscal approach. In the Fire Department, besides adding two full-time positions and soon a third, we have completely modernized our equipment. We had outdated and difficult to maintain equipment that was the best we could afford for many years. As our Equipment Repair and Replacement program has steadily grown, we have been able to upgrade our ambulance, add a brush vehicle for wildfires, added an ATV for trail rescues and firefighting and this year added two brand new fire trucks. From an equipment standpoint, the department is well off. Over the past 2 years we have added two Fire Fighter/EMT positions to the staff. The voters will decide in November if we can complete our development and add a much-needed Advanced Life Support capability (ALS). Our Police Department has similarly grown with addition of a couple of full-time positions. We have continued the conversion from the old Crown Victoria Interceptors to the new Explorer Interceptors. Our Chief has been able to procure much needed body armor and significantly improved our training program. We have added security cameras in multiple places of potential crime in our City and have a plan to add more as our resources permit. I consider Public Safety the first responsibility of any municipal government and will not be satisfied with our departments until we are providing the level of service a city of our size should expect. Both Chiefs have plans that will allow us to grow their capacity over the next several years until we are providing the appropriate level of service.
Maintenance and upgrading our Parks and trail system has been another priority of mine. Public Works, Parks and Rec, the Parks Agency and Council have worked diligently the past several years to do a systematic upgrade to much of our recreational infrastructure. From a safety perspective, the addition of the alphanumeric signs along our trail system is a big step. These markers are now incorporated into the South Sound 911 system so anyone needing help on our trails can call 911 and give an accurate location to direct our first responders to much more quickly arrive. In cooperation with the residents of the Historic Village, we completed a full rebuild of Ethel Lumdsen Park, adding equipment specifically requested by the community. Through use of a Lodging Tax (LTAC) grant from Pierce County, we were able to build the Mayor John Iafrati Shelter, restroom and kiosk in Iafrati Park and the entrance to the Historic Village. This has been very helpful in addressing the needs of visitors at that location who had been using residents front yards as public restrooms for years. It has also become a great place for youth and family activities in the Historic Village. Our long-time and much-loved Parks and Recreation Coordinator, Amy Walker, has received specific training on the maintenance and upkeep of park equipment and completed a program to bring every piece of park equipment in the City to record. We now know not only what we own, but its condition as well. This equipment is being integrated into our existing Equipment Repair and Replacement Program (ER&R) so that through the out years, we are financially prepared to both maintain and replace equipment on a regular schedule.
Our form of government is known as Council Mayor. The Council serves as the legislative branch of the government and the Mayor serves as the Chief Executive. This works fine, but it was both mine and many Council member's opinions that we were not getting the best possible fiscal planning or council involvement. Two of my initiatives were directed at remedying this situation. Last year we adopted a biennial (2 year) budget to provide for better fiscal planning. We are now conducting our first min-biennial review and next year we will begin developing our second biennial budget. The second initiative I proposed was adoption of a Council Committee system. As a Councilmember, one of the things I disliked the most was being surprised at the dais or voting on something I felt I did not have enough detailed understanding of. Although I had great confidence in our staff, I was always uncomfortable with having to make key decisions on topics I was less than fully knowledgeable about. To reduce this issue and take better advantage of the great Councilmembers serving in our City Government, we have recently adopted a Council Committee program after over a year of trials. This includes three committees; Public Works and Planning, Public Safety and Finance and Governance. We have also reordered our monthly meeting schedule, beginning in January, to start on the second Tuesday/Wednesday with Committee Meetings, the third Tuesday with Council Workshop and forth Tuesday with our business meeting. Our testing has shown that with Council members working directly with Staff, we get a richer more thorough product, greater Council understanding, and ultimately deliver a better legislative product in less time. I am very pleased with the improvements we have made in terms of governance.
Bond for a new Public Works Building: Our Public Works Department has been operating from inadequate facilities in the Historic Village for many years. The space used for administration was the previous Fire Department space that was condemned by OSHA. Anticipating the long-term need for new facilities, our previous rate study included funding for the new facility and earlier this year we were able to sell municipal bonds raising $10 mil to fund the new facility, convert the City to a remote water meter reading system and fund the restoration of a 3 million gallon water tank on Hoffman Hill, all without raising taxes or additional utility rates. The new PW facility will be located behind the Public Safety Building and besides providing modern facilities for Public Works, it will include refuel and maintenance facilities that will service all our City vehicles (except for specialized fire equipment).
Secure Funding for Expansion of DuPont-Steilacoom (D-S) Road: We have all seen the congestion that occurs on DuPont-Steilacoom Road anytime an issue happens on I-5. D-S Rd is a major bypass for I-5 going both directions and it is the only I-5 access for commercial traffic coming out of DuPont. The previously funded Connect Washington I-5 expansion will give us an additional lane on each side of I-5 and a grade separated overpass at Exit 119. The new exit will move North about 400 yards and take all the traffic away from in front of the Historic Village. I have worked with JBLM, The Port of Tacoma and our State Legislative Delegation to secure funding for a 1.2-mile expansion of DuPont-Steilacoom Road from its current 2 lanes with a turn lane to 4 lanes from I-5 to Wharf Road. This will significantly reduce congestion in this area and facilitate the growth in commercial traffic we are expecting.
There are many more things I could discuss, but I believe these have been the accomplishments over my first term that I am most proud of and hope to have as productive a second term. The job of serving as Mayor in our form of government is complex. I am glad I had four years as Council member to gain the training and understanding of what municipal governance requires. I have been blessed to work with a superb staff and to serve side by side with dedicated Council members. We have come a long way in maturing DuPont to fulfill the original vision of NW Landing, adapted over time as circumstances demand, but still have a way to go to make DuPont truly the “Crown Jewel of the South Sound”. I look forward to serving this City for another four years with the consent of the voters.
Dave: Thank you Mayor Courts for the overview of accomplishments within the City of Dupont. I greatly appreciate the time you have given me to help the citizens of Dupont learn more about what you, council members and those working for the people of Dupont have accomplished.