by Ted S. McGregor Jr.
Out of the frying pan and into the fire. That's a fair description of the past 18 months in the life of Mayor Jim West -- especially when you consider that he views his job as similar to driving a wagon train across the Great Salt Desert to get to the Promised Land.
While running for mayor back in 2003, Jim West was battling colon cancer and fighting for his life. Well, he won both those fights, but he also landed right in the fire. Over the past year, West has had to deal with the River Park Square issue that plagued the last three mayors, and he has had to preside over perhaps the most profound reduction in city services ever.
Now 53, West appeared hale and hearty at our Feb. 3 meeting. He told me that in April, it will be 24 months since his initial diagnosis with cancer, when he was told he might not make it. On his lapel, he wears a St. Jude pin. "The patron saint of lost causes," he said as he looked down at his protector. "And that would be me."
Over these past eight years or so, as so many civic battles raged, Spokane may have qualified as a lost cause, too. You could say that the city, like its mayor, has survived a traumatic illness. But as it has for West, 2004 -- as painful as it has been -- seems to have marked a turning point for the city. Is the wagon train finally reaching the other side of the desert?
INLANDER It seems like the city government is flying a little bit more under the radar than it has in past years. Is that by design, to calm the political waters, or is it just the character of the people in charge now?
JIM WEST We didn't necessarily set out to do it that way, although jokingly we had, in this corner of the building, this floor, a slogan of "Dare to be Dull." I thought it was really important for the city to focus on internal processes and service delivery, attitudes, morale, belief in our organization and getting things done. When you spend too much time making these big, giant pronouncements about all this stuff without having laid the foundation, you know, these pronouncements never get delivered on. And so you leave people out there with these grandiose expectations that never happen. And so when you do actually have something real, like the road projects, the first reaction is, "There they go again."
There's definitely a sense out there that things are running more smoothly in this building these days. Is that a function of your office getting along better with the city council?
One of the policies that I instituted right away was that a department head or a city employee didn't have to ask the mayor's permission to talk to a council member if they came and asked them for information. My legislative background is that if I wanted to know what was going on with the Department of Social and Health Services, I picked up the phone and called the director. And if they had told me that I had to call the governor's office, I would have fired the guy. And there was some of that tension with the council.
I think Dennis has done a great job with the council, without interjecting his personal agenda or without feeling like he has to correct every misstatement of every individual council member, letting them express their thoughts.
I spent two weeks before I took office calling each council member to tell them what I was doing [specifically related to changes in the budgeting process]. It was over the holidays, and I couldn't get ahold of Cherie [Rodgers]. Finally, the night before the council meeting [when the budget would be discussed], I got her on the phone and explained to her what I wanted to do. And she said, "That's fine with me." She had been through four mayors, and I was the first one who ever bothered to call her and ask her opinion about anything. She asked me about this policy of whether she could talk to staff people, and that was the first I'd learned of it. And I thought, "That's absurd, of course you can." I'll tell you, big dividends from that one phone call. We spent three or four hours on the phone.
You always said you really wanted this job. So far, has it been what you expected?
It's great. You know there are frustrations, and I can see how it's going to get more frustrating the further I get into it. But I love it.
In the November election, the most surprising thing may not have been the Rossi-Gregoire race; it was that the road bond passed in this town.
[With a laugh] No surprise to me...
I think you're the only one to think that. What do you credit that win to? Is it the new administration, or did people finally really just get fed up with the streets?
We asked for more than twice what had ever been asked for before; people said, "That's way too much -- you're crazy." Then they said, "You wanna do what? The general election?" They thought you have to go to a low-voter turnout special election so you can control the election.
One of the themes of what we've done this year is transparency. We've told on ourselves. We have this mantra of 'If you make a mistake, admit, fix it and move on.' There are two elements of that the city largely ignored in the past. One was never admitting you made a mistake, and two was never moving on. They might have fixed it, but they never got credit for fixing it because they never admitted it in the first place. When we had the problem with the day care [at the East Central Community Center], we called a press conference. We turned ourselves in and said, "This is what we're gonna do."
So we formed a streets committee in April. Anybody who ever complained about the streets, I put 'em on the committee. I found some of the city's biggest detractors and put them on the committee.
But don't you think it's a little more of a turning point than just fixing the streets?
That started with my State of the City address a year ago, when I said, "The answer to every question is 'Yes.'" There is a sense of optimism, and you hear about it in the community. Part of it is, I arrived on the scene at the right time. Part of it, I may be the right person at the right time, too. We've been down for so long that it couldn't last forever.
What about River Park Square. Is that part of breaking the shackles of the past? Is that why there's more optimism?
That's part of it; I think people are feeling forward progress. People get tired of me talking about the old Wagon Train, but if you remember the old TV show, as long as the train was moving on the Oregon Trail, it was all right. But every time they stopped at night, the fights would break out. As long as they were moving, all those detractors had to run to keep up.
And River Park Square fits into the whole sense of "We're going someplace." There are still folks who want to fight it out in court to find out who's right and everything. There's a price to that and there's a satisfaction, I guess, but the price is much higher than the satisfaction. This kind of goes to our 'Admit it, fix it and move on.' The city screwed up. The city had some serious liability.
During the campaign, I said I was going to get legal experts in here to look at the case and give me advice. We hired a judge out of San Francisco, a retired federal judge. He came up here for a day, and he basically said, "Your chances are 50/50 at best against the bondholders."
That scared me, that we'd go through all the expense of trial and when we got done, we'd find out exactly what we already knew: that the city didn't pay its bills. We could make all these esoteric arguments about why we didn't have to, but we're still going to lose -- probably. One factor is that juries look at cities and think they have money and that other people are victims.
I know you've said making it right with the bondholders was going to help, and now we're going to go out and issue some bonds [for the streets]. Are we going to see a benefit? Is it going to be cheaper to get that money?
Our bond rating went from a BBB to AA-. It's directly related to [settling with the bondholders] and our budgeting process. I went to San Francisco when we went down to talk to the bond houses. They didn't care one twit about local politics. All they cared about was whether the city would honor its debt. All they knew was they weren't getting paid. When we stepped up to the plate to pay them, that brought huge rewards. That will save us millions over a long, long time. As much as the city was saying, "We're not the Foundation," they weren't buying it. They were never gonna buy it.
What about the budget cuts? That's been a painful experience these past several months. Are we at a point now where we won't have to go through that again?
We're at a point for the rest of '05 of stability. What '06 looks like is a little too early to tell. We went as deep as we did with the budget reductions so that we wouldn't nickel-and-dime this out over four years or five years. We wouldn't, every year, be going through this kind of reduction.
The city was racing way ahead of its headlights. The budgeted amount for '04 was $122 million general fund, and that was before you added on any pay raises or any other inflationary expenses. Well, the budget for '05 is $118 million. We went backwards, and the reason we went backwards is because, for the last 30 years the city's been incrementally spending more than it was taking in, and it just caught up with us. I'm surprised they got away with it for as long as they did. And they were bailed out some years along that path when revenues would come in higher than predicted.
A couple of things we're doing is we're going to a five-year budget analysis, where we'll have a five-year horizon on our revenue and expenditures, so we can see the danger points out there. And revenue now is pretty darn predictable. Expenditures, they're not quite as predictable, but they're pretty close.
[City Manager] Jack [Lynch] was warning in 2003 of the train wreck that was coming, actually in 2002. Everybody was just kind of oblivious to it. I don't think we went beyond where we had to; I think it's responsible to take the full hit instead of just dribbling it out there in a constant downward slope. One of my fears is you get into a death spiral.
Our ability to get additional revenue is limited. A city's take on property tax is allowed to go up 1 percent a year. Well, 1 percent is not even close to inflation. It used to be that the cities were allowed to take 6 percent, and oftentimes did. One percent is unrealistic.
One of the things under discussion now, and it's strictly discussion, would be to do an excess levy, similar to what school districts do. [We'd say], "This is city service, this is basic service, this is enhanced service. Enhanced service means you have 20 more firefighters, 10 more cops and 10 more librarians. Basic service means this is what you get." Basic service still has to be a good service, and it has to be a service delivered with a smile and the proper attitude or else people will never buy the enhanced service.
That would be a vote of the people, but you can't do it the way a lot school districts have when they've lost levies. You know, where they say, if you don't give us the money, we're not going to give you football. You can't tell them what you're not going to give them, as much as, you know, we're doing a good job for you, this is what you're getting, but we could do a better job for you if we had this much more.
The budget has made it a sobering year for people, as we've realized that maybe we're not as well off as we had thought we were. Is there any good news for Spokane?
It's terrible for the 100 families that lost their jobs; that is incredibly unfortunate. Our challenge is to take the difficulty of these budget cuts and convert them into a positive in some sense.
What gives me hope is that people have hope, and I'm not sure that in the recent past they had that. You've got to be able to believe in that Oregon Trail dream -- that you're going somewhere.
Every big project I've visited this year -- we visited Global Credit Union, for example, and when they got up for their ribbon-cutting, they were profuse in their thanks to the city and the cooperation they got out of the building and planning departments. The same with the American West Building; the same with the [American] Legion Building. All of those folks were saying, "The city couldn't have been better; it was really good to work with them." Which is really counter to a lot of what I used to hear. And, you know, Harlan Douglass took down his sign [the "Don't relocate to Spokane" sign on North Division]. I actually sent him a letter thanking him for taking down his sign; I gave him a Spirit of Spokane award. I have conversations with Harlan almost weekly; he's like the second or third -- maybe fourth -- largest taxpayer to the city of Spokane.
Many people come up to me on the street and say, "We know this isn't your fault, but you're doing a really good job dealing with it." It doesn't matter whose fault it is, even if there is somebody to blame. The fact of the matter is, this is how we found it; this is what we have to deal with. But getting back to that street bond issue: That was a big vote of confidence for the city.
What about your health? You've been through a lot these past few years. Is there anything the people in the community should hear about?
With my operation last fall, they can't find any more cancer.
This doesn't have anything to do with being mayor, but with being a cancer survivor: What advice do you offer to anyone who gets that bad news that they have cancer?
That's a tough one, because I don't know exactly what I did other than I didn't let it stop me. I did find a faith. St. Jude is my patron saint. St. Jude is the patron saint of hopeless causes, and that would be me.
So you think it was a hopeless case when you were diagnosed?
Who knows? I just went on with my life as much as I could. There could have been times to feel sorry for myself, and I just didn't because I was busy. If there was any fighting that I was doing, it wasn't fighting the disease. I was fighting the campaign; I was fighting persistent rumors that I was dying tomorrow. Obviously with cancer, the earlier you detect it, the better off you are, so anybody over 50 ought to go get a colonoscopy.
I never thought I was gonna die; I never asked the doctors if I was gonna die. I did ask, "What's the worst-case scenario?" The first doctor said, "The worst-case scenario is you may only have a year." The second doctor I saw at the University [of Washington Medical Center] -- he said, "No, the worst-case scenario is four months." But after my first surgery, he knew that wasn't the case.
It'll be 24 months in April since my diagnosis. Turns out that my grandfather died of colon cancer, and my aunt and my uncle both had it.
During the campaign, when people would say, "Oh, he's got cancer, you shouldn't elect him," a whole bunch of cancer survivors took a kind of ownership. I got a lot of sympathy votes.
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Publication date: 2/17/05