By Polly Keary, Editor
Geoffrey Thomas is a planner by trade, so it should come as no surprise that he’s entering office as Monroe’s new mayor with planning forefront in mind.
Monroe needs a plan for managing money, a plan for enforcing ordinances, a plan for what to do about legal pot, a plan for economic growth and a plan for processing a backlog of permits.
Monroe also needs a plan for the downtown, a plan for parks, a plan for community activities, and a plan for how to advertise them.
And Thomas got many of those plans rolling last week. He entered office on Thursday. By the end of Friday he’d put in about 20 hours and kept on working through the weekend. It’s a busy start to what he anticipates will be a busy year.
Thomas began the week with back-to-back meetings with the departments throughout the city, as well as council members.
The first thing that became clear was that the city needed help with planning, he said.
“The planning department has a backlog of more than 40 pending items, from enforcement actions to short and long subdivisions, boundaries and multifamily applications,” he said. “Our current planning person is working on that, but 40 is a lot.”
So Thomas took a decisive step; he laid off economic development manager Jeff Sax Friday, and will instead look for a community development director, which Monroe has not had since Hiller West was let go in 2009.
A community development director will be able to work on economic development, but also will have planning skills, including the ability to help process permits and work on the 2015 update to the city’s Comprehensive Plan, a very involved plan detailing strategies for every element of city government for years into the future.
And Thomas doesn’t think the fight over the rezone of property at the east edge of Monroe is over. Although the sitting council approved the rezone in an emergency meeting Dec. 26, Thomas believes it is likely that the matter will wind up before the Growth Management Hearings Board, which could consume a large amount of city time.
Ultimately, Thomas hopes that the change will also make it easier and faster to get a permit in the city, whether one is adding a deck to a home or building a large apartment complex, he said.
The city needs a better plan for managing money, too, said Thomas, who is a legislative analyst at the Snohomish County Council Office, and whose job includes budget matters.
“I want to work with city staff and council to come up with fiscal planning policies so we can do a better job of forecasting future years’ budgets,” he said.
By looking at recent years, the city can establish a baseline budget, and then use revenue in excess of that for reserves or one-time projects like street overlays, he said. If revenues are consistently higher over the course of years, the baseline can be adjusted, but only cautiously.
Thomas wants to accomplish that plan in the first quarter of the year, he said.
Another pressing issue is that of recreational marijuana, he noted.
“I personally did not vote in favor of recreation marijuana,” he said. “I was worried about having a law that was inconsistent with federal law. With that said, I am concerned that if we don’t adopt regulations on the local level, we will be subjecting ourselves to state law on where to site these sorts of uses.”
There are four alternatives for the city, he noted. The city could refuse to issue permits to businesses inconsistent with both state and federal law; it could ban marijuana-related businesses altogether; it could continue to put moratoriums in place or it could go ahead and allow such businesses.
Thomas said that it’s a matter for council to decide, but he said he is aware that a majority of Monroe voters approved legalization. While he doesn’t condone marijuana use, especially for young people, he thinks the right approach might be to establish a specific zoning for such businesses in order to avoid legal conflict, much as the city did with adult entertainment, which is approved in a very small part of the Fryelands.
Currently there are two retailers applying for one liquor board license available for Monroe.
The recent grant of enough money to build Tjerne Place across town was a blessing, Thomas said, and he thinks there’s more Monroe could do to pursue such grants.
“Something else I want to do in the next four years is engage not just the community and business community, but our state legislators and senator and other elected officials and be active in sharing Monroe’s concerns with them,” he said.
Thomas also remains concerned about the downtown, which just lost the group that had managed the city’s Main Street program, a state program designed to help towns like Monroe develop their historic downtowns.
One thing the city could do is work on ways to increase the amount of housing opportunities bordering the downtown, he said, as that would increase day and evening business there. And Wagner Performing Arts Center, now under the management of the Monroe Arts Council, is an asset that could help draw people to the downtown. The city could include a happenings list in the monthly utility bill to support such events.
And the city should probably review its policies regarding the downtown to make sure they are appropriate for the current economy, as opposed to the more affluent times in which they were written, he added.
A park with artificial turf would be another good asset to draw people to town, too, he suggested.
“We are doing a parks master plan update this year too, and as part of that I’m hoping we can work with our school district to more effectively use taxpayers’ dollars by maybe having a shared park facility with synthetic turf fields, perhaps with lights, so there are places for people to recreate in the winter and early spring,” said Thomas.
And that’s just a few of the things Thomas intends to tackle in coming months.
There are railroad crossings that need attention; there are troublesome intersections at Kelsey and Main, and Blueberry and Kelsey. There’s the sign ordinance to enforce; lots more meetings to have and relationships to develop with the county and state. There’s a budget process to start in May, as well.
“There’s going to be a lot of work this year,” he said.