Thursday, May 30, 2013

Meet Ruston's Newest Politician

I've asked the candidates for Ruston council and mayor to respond to a few questions. To date, I have heard back from two of the six candidates. I met with Lyle Hardin, the incumbent running to retain his seat on the council. I'll post the notes from our conversation soon. The only candidate to respond directly to the questions is Holland Cohen, who is running against Deb Kristovich for Council Position 2. Read on to learn a bit more about our newest local politician:
Holland Cohen
Why are you choosing to run?
I am running for Ruston Council because I love this community. In Ruston there is a true sense of place - a real sense of community. I know my neighbors; they come to our home for BBQ's and attend our Christmas parties.  In Ruston we take pride in what we do and how we do it. We gather for Easter egg hunts and car shows. And we visit our neighborhood parks or go on a walk along our beautiful new Ruston Way.  I believe we must take great care, and work hard, to preserve the sense of community we enjoy in Ruston. Ruston is the place that I want to call 'home' forever; but I also feel that if this is going to be my home forever I want to do everything I can to ensure that it is a place striving to be its best.

Ruston should be a place we only leave when we want to – not because we need to.  I envision a place that offers a variety of shopping and retail opportunities; restaurants lining Pearl Street, that stay busy morning, noon and night. I imagine what it would look like if our business district were fully occupied, and see sidewalks that are teeming with people - residents and visitors alike - who have come to our beautiful corner to enjoy fully walkable sidewalks, and our safe, passable streets.  I see a place that strives for beauty and art, investing in those little extras that changes ordinary to extraordinary.  I see a town that takes pride in its parks and invests in new play areas for our kids.  I believe that my vision is attainable. And in fact, we may be relatively close. But I also believe that we can do better in preserving and strengthening our community.  I am proud to call Ruston my home.  And I care about doing better. So it’s because I love Ruston that I choose to run.

What are the priorities for Ruston?
I have 3 main priorities if I am elected to serve this community:

First, I will work to implement strategies that grow our economic base. Without an increased tax base our municipal finances are unsustainable. Even with the strong fiscal management implemented under the current Mayor, Ruston continues to run a deficit. We spend more than we take in. This is not sustainable. We have a revenues problem, and a stable fix is to work on strategies that increase our sales tax base. I will work collaboratively and cooperatively with our business community. Streamlined permitting, and efficient processes are critical to all businesses. I will work to update aspects of our code that have become a burden to our local business’s success. We must proactively engage with our local commercial district to help produce a thriving economic base. Increased sales tax revenues will propel our community into the future. We should be a city that businesses want to be part of.  Unfortunately recent decisions have harmed our reputation as a community, and we have relationships to repair with our partners in business. I oppose the Council’s recent decision to impose a moratorium on commercial development and my number one priority is to fix the problems that our local businesses are faced with as a result of our city code.

We are so lucky to be geographically located where we are – the amenities that surround our community place us head-and-shoulders above other parts of Pierce County, and beyond. Point Defiance has 3.1 million visitors per year, and the State Highway serving our state ferry system provides thousands more potential visitors. I will make it my top priority to reach out to the local business community to ensure that our inherent strengths lead to a lasting and continued success. When Ruston’s businesses prosper our city will prosper. Through thoughtful planning, we can create a sustained prosperity for Ruston.   But this means that we must listen to what our residents and business owners are saying. We must ensure that our zoning code reflects the direction and vision that our citizens envision for our community.  We are not Tacoma. Nor are we Gig Harbor, Parkland or Seattle for that matter. We are Ruston. And we must make the best land use planning choices that ensure that our community is best served for future growth and sustained prosperity. I do not believe reactionary planning benefits our town in the long term. We must seek the trust of our business community partners, and make any new businesses know that if they take the risk of setting up shop in Ruston, we will do everything within our power to help them succeed. Arbitrary increases in taxes, moratoriums, and overbearing process will stymie our growth and our community’s future. And while we must ensure that our land use codes are up to date and compatible with our community’s vision, so too must we ensure that our reputation reflects our government as fair stewards of the public's trust.

Secondly, I will work to leverage our partnerships with our local government partners to ensure that our costs are managed as responsibly as possible. For instance, furthering our relationship with Tacoma has the potential to lower our City’s costs and our personal costs. Everybody has a household budget to balance – as does our local government. With Ruston’s utilities all serviced by Tacoma through the willingness of TPU-Power to sell us electricity, TPU-Water to serve our water system, and Tacoma’s general government accepting our sewage, storm water and garbage, we must find more ways to ensure that are costs are kept as low as possible I believe that Ruston pays more than it should for many of the services it receives and we must make sure that our tax payers are asked to pay the least, but receive the best level of service we deserve. If services can be provided through third parties or other municipalities that would meet or exceed the current level of service, then I believe there is no reason for Ruston to continue to provide such services. Examples of partnerships that should be explored include our parks service - we should explore the opportunities for cost savings and partnerships with Metro Parks; planning and engineering services must be examined to ensure that the costs to our business community and citizens are comparable to other municipalities, and if not whether partnerships can be achieved with established planning departments that bring these costs in line with market expectations.  And I believe we should explore third party garbage service. While our city recently invested heavily into its own automated garbage truck and new garbage cans, I believe that we can more efficiently meet our citizens’ garbage needs through third party contracts, removing the burden of maintaining the costly infrastructure from our municipal waste stream. Our local government partners have treated us well and treated us fairly. And we have smartly leveraged these partnerships in many instances, but I believe Ruston can do more to ensure that the expenditures associated with running our government do not continue to exceed the income produced by our community.

My third priority is to continue the betterment of our infrastructure as well as bringing a responsible ‘maturing’ of our land use code. The last four years have seen remarkable change in town – Point Ruston’s completely replaced Ruston Way and the city sponsored sewer replacement project are two projects that we can all be proud of.  These projects took care of some of the most seriously neglected systems in town. But remarkably, these projects were financed by others, with very little cost to the tax payers (though the costs to repay the sewer bonds will be included in the rate-payer structure).  But if Ruston’s antiquated infrastructure is going to keep pace with the pending growth that’s to come, then we must take pains to plan for tackling these every-growing liabilities. We must protect and preserve the stability of our existing neighborhoods by making improvements and maintaining our infrastructure.  At the same time, our zoning code and long range planning must foster a diversity of housing opportunities with a thoughtful eye toward future expansion that stays consistent with the values of the community. However, in pursuing any zoning code changes we must seek-out advice from our resident-citizens and resident-businesses, alike. I pledge to communicate openly and honestly when making decisions that will have an impact and alter the lives of our citizens and local businesses. No decision will please everyone. But I believe it is the duty of our public officials to communicate the rationale for their decisions. Right, wrong or indifferent the decisions that a council makes affects its citizens. Open communication and responsiveness is my promise, and is how I pledge to do this job.

What are Ruston's greatest strengths/weaknesses?
  • Location, location, location.   The greatest strength that Ruston has to offer is our location... We are blessed with some of the most phenomenal natural beauty and public amenities of any community around. We are surrounded by peaceful, natural beauty, which is enjoyed by our residents. The natural bowl around which this town was developed sets up some of the most dramatic and beautiful mountain & water views, rivaling anything else on the Puget Sound. As a city seeking financial independence this also gives us a great advantage in promoting tourists and visitors to town (i.e. outside dollars), as well as giving us an advantage in the recruitment of business.
  • Emergency Services – Ruston Fire and Ruston Police. We have a low crime rate due in large part to our professional police force, who we are so fortunate to have in town. We also have an amazing volunteer base of emergency responders in our fire department.  I personally have seen them in action saving my neighbor's life and can attest to their absolute professionalism.  Fast response times, localized service. We have the best of both worlds with our emergency service personnel and it is a strength of ours that I will work to preserve.
  • Pearl St. Business District. Our Pearl St. commercial district also gives our community a great advantage – if we can capitalize on the traffic that passes through the town along this corridor we will strengthen our town’s bottom line.
  • Proximity to the ‘Market’. We are also proximate to a robust job market with Tacoma’s commercial business district only minutes away and also being relatively proximate to the major metropolitan and business districts north (Kent, Seattle, etc.), which allows our residents to enjoy the benefits and beauty of our ‘small town life’, while directly accessing the broader economy and its jobs. 
  • Community. And last, but certainly not least, our greatest strength is the true nature of our ‘community’. Our neighbors are nice and engaging. We wave to each other as we walk or drive by. We support each other; and we hold each other accountable. We are small enough to make a meaningful difference in our government and our future, yet strong enough and well positioned to continue to do it on our own. We have stable local business anchors that have served our community for many years, and we are on a trajectory to grow into a stronger tax base as Point Ruston develops the Ruston-side of its project. 
  • Business Climate. Ruston has a reputation for not working well with the business and development community. The 10 empty storefronts along our Pearl Street business district are a reminder of our community’s struggle to balance the business community’s and residential interests in town. While empty stores are certainly a sign of the times due to the recession, Ruston residents should not need to leave town for their shopping and entertainment needs.  The potential of our business districts to offer retail shopping and dining is far superior to many other competing areas, yet Ruston is struggling to make common sense zoning decisions that give our commercial landlords and business owners the certainty that they need and deserve to make long-term commitments to our town. Reactionary decisions, be it zoning codes or other regulations that interfere and alter the way an organization conducts its affairs, are not fair and do not create a climate to attract growth.  We can, and we must, do better.
  • Failing Infrastructure. Our sidewalks and streets are not walkable. Even the newest sidewalks built when Ruston replaced the sewer system were not fitted with curb-cuts and ramps. This is not good planning and difficult on our disabled citizens and those of us with strollers (try getting a double stroller lifted up onto every curb at every street you cross).   Also, our recreational spaces are becoming run-down and if left to decay will become nuisances to our neighbors and liabilities to the town. We must prioritize our spending in a way that leverages capital improvements in a meaningful way that provides long term answers to our antiquated infrastructure and town assets. 
  • Community-Wide Involvement.  We must do better to include a much more diverse group in our decision making process. While I am amazed to be the only person to file for a council position other than the incumbents, our council must be inclusive and welcoming as possible. So often the red-tape of process gets in the way of progress. I believe this is off-putting to those who would otherwise be interested to serve on the town’s various committees and boards. Our code should be stripped of arduous, duplicative laws that result in process. Progress should trump process, and as a council person I would focus on ensuring that we proactively reach out to include community-wide voices in our government choices, instead of sitting back and waiting for the community to come to the council. We are only as strong as the electorate.
  • Utility Costs and Govn’t Expense.  We must do more as a government to control the costs for both our residents as well as our municipal costs. Our utilities and garbage can be provided more cheaply. We don't have access to the same recycling programs Tacoma does, and yet we pay more for our garbage collection. Paying more for less is a disservice to our community. We can do better.  

How do you view the balance between residential and commercial interests?
It's important to recognize that both sides sustain each other.  Without commercial growth, our town would not have the financial resources to exist at all.  Growing our commercial sector while sustaining our existing businesses is good for our residents, and good for our government. More commercial options for our residents benefits our neighborhood by not only providing great, localized services, but also sustains our tax base.  However, we must take great care in preserving the charm of our community through thoughtful planning and regulation. 

What are the revenue/expenditure priorities?
Ruston must increase its  revenues if it is going to survive over the long term. We cannot sustain deficit spending forever. The best way to do this is to ensure that we attract new businesses that generate sales tax. There is very little residential property tax value that can be added to our tax roles. There are, however, significant revenues to be had if our commercial business district is built out and fully developed. Ruston must make a concerted effort to ensure that our local business climate is hospitable to new entrants into town, and the best way to do this is to make our land use and zoning codes easy to understand and implement. Our reputation can be made through a simple code that creates a climate that is easy to do business in.  But Ruston’s reputation in the business and development community must first be corrected if we are going to increase our revenues in the pursuit of a sustainable tax base.

My top budget priority is public safety.  Maintaining our police force and emergency response capacity is crucial.  We must invest in a 24/7 police force. It is inexcusable that we are denied full time police protection. Secondly, we must maintain our infrastructure systems and invest in improvements that beautify and benefit our city.   Our streets should be maintained better and those with past due maintenance issues should be made a priority, while focusing on a strategic plan that ensures that we have safe and accessible streets and alleys. Our city must be kept clean as well – regular pick up of litter should be a priority and adequate funding should be provided for garbage cans at strategic corners in the most heavily used parts of town. We also should make better use of our city’s assets – one example is the historic school house. There is unused space in our historic school house, yet City Hall is located in a separate house away from the Council Chambers and the police department, which are located in the school.  This is redundant and costly. For a small upfront investment Ruston could and should co-locate City Hall and Council Chambers together in the school house with the Police Department.  We also must study the other redundancies that can be removed from our small system, and understand whether outside partners would serve us in a more efficient way.

Why should Ruston vote for you?
Ruston should be a place that people want to visit - offering shopping, restaurants, and vibrancy. Ruston should also be a place where people want to live.  We are located in one of the most unique, beautiful settings, right next to the water and all of nature's beauty.  Ruston must treasure what it has, but also strive to gain what it is missing. I believe our town is a place that we can all be proud of.  I believe I have a few good ideas. But I also know that there isn’t a single person in town that knows it all, and I welcome your input and ideas. I will be your voice to help make those ideas become reality. I pledge to be accessible. And I pledge to be responsive. I look forward to talking to the community and learning more about your specific issues, and I can’t wait to meet you at your front doors as I begin this adventure to represent this community that I love so much.


Jim said...

A breath of fresh air in a moribund council. Imagine new ideas! Support local business! Wow!
Support Point Ruston and get them building in Ruston.
Website please?

Ruston Home said...

I don't have a website for Holland, but her email is

Anonymous said...

Relationships and connections can be both a strength and a weakness. How does one balance what is good for the Town of Ruston vs. what is good for Point Ruston when those issues potentially collide. It would be naive to think that this would not happen ever or that sometimes the interests coincide and sometimes the interests are in disagreement. Does one recuse oneself from the final vote on such issues?

Jim said...

sometimes the interests are in disagreement

Tacoma obviously is not up to par with Ruston vis a vis Point Ruston.

Please point out a few interests not in agreement with Ruston? Maybe the awnings?

Anonymous said...

Mr. Ferrer, I appreciate you taking the time to read my answers to Karen’s questions. Thank you for the thoughtful response. For those of you who don’t know, my husband is Loren Cohen, the eldest son of Mike Cohen, who is the developer of Point Ruston. Loren works for his dad in the old schoolhouse right here in Ruston.
In my opinion, my connection to Point Ruston is a good thing. It gives me a unique perspective. So often we elect people who give us hope, saying they want to make things better, making us feel like they know what we go through every day. Often times, the reality is that these people have been working in government their whole careers, or they haven’t had the opportunity to work in the city they represent. They aren’t aware of the process, of what the everyday obstacles are. I am lucky to say that my family lives and works here in Ruston.
I have been thinking of running for the council for some time now. As I stated above, I love this city and I want to see it flourish. If the voters give me the opportunity to serve them, they can count on someone who is honest, and who has no hidden agenda. I am aware of the conflict of interest laws, and I will pay very close attention so as not to violate the law. I believe recusal from a vote is the clearest way to ensure that I do not take any action that would cause me or my family to personally benefit (either directly or indirectly). So in the event that a situation like this were to arise I would need to abstain from voting and likely make it clear on the record that the recusal was done intentionally in order to ensure that none of my actions violated the conflict of interest laws. However, if, for example, the issue is improving process for businesses in Ruston, I will not recuse myself in those instances. Any votes that come up in regard to business in Ruston will be important for me to be a part of. As I said above, I want to see this city prosper. If Ruston prospers, our citizens prosper.
-Holland Cohen