Cost of community survey sparks discourse on future of Walla Walla

Nicole Likarish

Editors at the Walla Walla Union-Bulletin have wrapped up their Cost of Community Survey. The survey invited community members to rank five city projects they deemed the most urgent of Walla Walla’s needs. The results have invigorated the community, sparking dialogue between the community and its civic officials.

Ranking as the first priority among survey voters was, not surprisingly, traffic control and street repairs. In the last year, the City Council successfully levied a tax of 10 cents per $1,000 of property value for street repair, but city budgets were only increased by hundreds of thousands of dollars, not by the tens of millions necessary to fully renovate the streets. As Mayor Dominick Elia told Union-Bulletin reporter Terry McConn, “We’re doing the best we can with the additional dollars.”

City Council member Fred Mitchell agreed that voters will need to indicate this priority at the polls so the city can move forward with the project and pointed to the frustration of bond backers who are consistently defeated, always trying to adjust proposals to match voters’ desires.
“We’re aware of the outcry for better streets and an aquatic center, but when you’ve tried bonds and tried bonds, what do you do? Maybe [the survey results] will motivate Council to try again,” said Mitchell to the Union-Bulletin reporter.

Also among the top five were the proposed aquatic center, a new police dispatch center, a new high school and a homeless shelter. Among the several classes at Sager Middle School, Blue Ridge Elementary and Walla Walla High School that participated in the survey, these projects also received primary support, indicating certain priorities span many demographics, even those too young to actually cast a ballot. Corey Hobbs took the opportunity to teach a lesson in community and citizenship to his fifth graders at Blue Ridge, writing to Maria Gonzalez of the Union-Bulletin, “In a very short 7-8 years, my classroom will have the power to legally vote. My intention is to use series like Cost of Community to help them think deeply and critically about issues that impact them and be creative in how they will address them.”

This creative dialogue is just what the survey was intended to spark. For those who are of voting age, the survey, wrote city editor Alasdair Stewart, “is intended to be a measure of the top priorities for Valley residents…. The survey can’t predict how specific projects will fare at the polls.” Citing the controversial Green Park Elementary School’s hard-won success at the polls in the early 1990s and its three rejected bonds prior to 1993, Stewart understands the importance of gauging voter preferences. He emphasized that a certain project’s ranking in this survey has no absolute bearing on whether it will “sink or swim come election day.” The survey included projected costs but not their translation into individual property taxes.

City council members and bond backers are now trying to assess interest and with impressive participation in the survey, feedback is likely.
Of those seeking feedback, the Walla Walla School Board is especially curious considering the failed school bond last year. Several school projects ranked highly on the survey. At number four was the construction of a new public high school and at number seven were the renovations to Walla Walla High School. The renovations for the existing high school were among the features of last year’s rejected school bond. The board has assembled a task force to consider the most pressing needs of Walla Walla schools, the issues surrounding the construction and renovations, and the failed voter support last year.

School board member Mary Jo Geidi is “absolutely delighted” with the showing of community support and also eager to deepen the dialogue between the board and the community. She told McConn, “There’s an awful lot of discussion and information that needs to get out to the public to make a decision.” As with the road repair projects, specific awareness of community priority will help the board to more effectively appeal to taxpayers. “The survey provides a barometer of what people are thinking and that’s good for all of us to know,” said Geidi.

Judging by the community’s interest and the discussion already begun between civic leaders and their constituents, the Union-Bulletin editor seems to have achieved at the very least, an increased awareness of community needs. Of the 1,200 survey takers who made the conversation possible, Stewart is proud and grateful, saying, “I also hope local residents share my pride in our community for having taken this conversation so seriously and for taking the time to make themselves heard.”