On March 11, 2021, the City of Auburn held its first town hall meeting of the year. The town hall was held virtual and available to view live on Zoom, YouTube, and Facebook.
The town hall was to discuss accomplishments and goals for the city and to answer questions. The virtual event began with a pre-recorded video was played to provide updates and goals for the city. Each of the city’s department directors shared what their department worked on in 2020 and what is planned for the year ahead.
Updates from Department Directors
Administration (8:28): Includes facilities, emergency management, and multimedia and communications.
Community Development (13:44): Code compliance, permits, licenses, and inspections, zoning and land use, and community services.
Finance (22:51): Budget, financial reporting, utility billing, accounting, general financial operations.
Human Resources and Risk Management (26:45): Employment, training and development, civil service processes, labor relations, safety, health and wellness, and diversity, equity, and inclusion.
Legal (38:58): Handles a variety of legal matters pertaining to city interests including representing the city, public records requests, legislation, code enforcement actions, contract disputes, civil forfeiture, and criminal prosecution.
Parks, Arts, & Recreation (39:20): Park management (including the golf course, cemetery, museum, Mary Olson Farm, senior center), Auburn Avenue Theater, Community Event Center, Summer Camps and Community Events.
Public Works (46:34): Capital projects, roads, sewer, water, and storm drainage.
The town hall panel included Mayor Backus, Deputy Mayor DaCorsi, Assistant Police Chief Mark Caillier, Community Development Director Jeff Tate, Public Works Director Ingrid Gaub, and Outreach Program Administrator Kent Hay.
Prior to the town hall, the public was asked to submit questions to be answered by panel members. The questions included issues like Covid-19, community health, litter, roads, police, and homelessness. All panel members were provided submitted questions before the town hall. Backus moderated the meeting and read the questions for each topic.
Backus stated only some of the submitted questions would be answered during the town hall. Responses to the remaining submitted questions would be published on the city’s town hall page.
Topic: COVID-19, Community & Business Health
Q: For businesses that were able to survive the shutdowns, what are the ways the city is supporting their recovery?
Q: How much federal help has the city received during COVID and how has that been allocated?
Q: How is the city handling COVID safety with staff?
Response from the panel:
- The City received $3.5 million from the federal CARES Act back in September.
- Used a portion of CARES Act money to provide small business grants to companies that were significantly impacted.
- Provided utility forgiveness for businesses,
- Masks and other PPE were handed out to residents and businesses.
- Created signage outside of businesses for business pickup zones.
- Easing of the construction permit process in order to allow construction to continue during these times.
- Arranged for city staff that are able to work remotely to do so.
Q: What is being done about the increasing litter around the city, why does it seem so much worse right now, and how can we help?
Q: Is there an ETA or plan to start volunteer cleanup programs again with the city and police department?
Response from the panel:
- The city acknowledged the increase in trash. While there are a few things that probably contributed to a buildup in the trash, it’s difficult to attribute the increase in litter and dumping to any one thing over the last year.
- The City has had to suspend community service work crew trash pick-ups.
- The City has had to suspend the Adopt a Street program.
- Many donation locations (e.g. Goodwill, Habitat for Humanity) were closed or very limited.
- There are about 250 miles of road for the City to address with litter.
- There is a full-time staff that works different parts of the city each day that cleans up and dispose of litter and empties the public trash cans.
- The city is hoping to get the community service road cleanup crew going again as we get later into 2021.
- The community must also take responsibility, take pride, and not litter.
- Citizens can also help by picking up a grabber and while out on a walk, take opportunities to help clean up.
- The police are actively writing tickets to people who litter whenever they can track down and identify who did it. They want the community to know that the fines for littering and illegal trash dumping can be large.
Q: It seems like the new sidewalks I have seen have made the roads really narrow. What inspired the design to have them be so wide?
Q: I have seen street upgrades, sidewalk improvements, and traffic light reconfigurations at different locations throughout the city, but not at other places that seem to need them as well. How do you determine what streets are chosen for repairs/updates?
Response from the panel:
- The City has recently adopted what they call a “complete street design.” Making streets more usable for pedestrians and bicyclists.
- The roads actually have not gotten narrower; however, walkways have gotten wider which gives the perception that the road width has been reduced when it’s actually the same size.
- Determining which streets are chosen for repairs is a complicated process that involves many things, including available funds, engineering restrictions, future plans, and leveraging city funds with grant funds.
- If the utilities or sewer under a road will require updating in the future roadwork will be put off to prevent tearing up brand new roads when doing that future work.
- Grant funding is a large portion of the budget, so the City has to plan repairs while keeping in mind which projects are more likely to get the grant reward. Unfortunately, many of the local roads don’t qualify for grant funds.
- There are lots of restrictions and lots of need so it’s a balancing act.
Q: Property and mail theft are rampant and under-reported due to the perceptions of ‘nothing will be done’ and ‘police won’t even come’. How will the city act to deter crime?
Q: There has been a lot of conversation around defunding police and other changes, does the city have any plans to reduce the size of the force? What is the department doing to ensure responsible policing?
Response from the panel:
- The police agree that mail theft goes underreported based on the numbers from internal crime analyst reports. Last year only 61 incidents of mail theft were reported.
- The police department has a property crimes unit that does mail fraud package stings and puts out decoy packages around the city in order to catch mail thieves.
- Because of Covid-19 the courts are running on a limited scale and there is a huge backlog which limits the number of cases the prosecutor can file.
- Property crimes and non-violent crimes are moved down on the priority list. The cases don’t go away and police will still arrest an individual if probable cause is established. Hopefully, once the courts open back up more of those cases will get filed and processed.
- Individuals are encouraged to file a police report online if there is no known suspect or the incident happened at a previous time (e.g. vehicle prowl, stolen mail). The department follows up on these reports as if they were reported directly to an officer. If an individual would like an officer to contact them, they will.
- The department currently has 23 of the available 119 commissioned officers out for injuries and nine individuals still in field training. Minimum staffing is being met, but staffing issues exist.
Q: What are Auburn’s plans to reduce homelessness (tiny houses, shelters, etc.)?
Q: What about reducing the causes of homelessness?
Q: The illegal camping and dumping at interurban trailheads have become bad. These trailheads have signs clearly marked no overnight camping, but it still persists, leaving trailheads for citizens unusable due to safety, needles, and feces. What can we do to make these spots family-friendly again?
Response from the panel:
- The City has a homeless outreach professional that is actively going onto the trails and campsites to offer community services in the attempt to give the homeless alternatives to living outside.
- Covid tests are being administered at shelters.
- The City is enforcing city park closures from dusk till dawn.
- The City is offering services and shelter to the homeless.
- If assistance is not accepted, then a 48-hour notice to vacate is given.
- The City asks people to refrain from giving out money on the corner because doing so discourages homeless people from seeking the resources that the city is already offering.
- The City says please don’t work against the taxpayer services already provided.
Backus also encourages people to report other concerns like illegal trash dumping, homeless camps, and other problems around the city. You can submit issues either on the City of Auburn’s website (click) or through the mobile app called SeeClickFix. Reports can be submitted anonymously.
Future Town Halls
Response to Thursday’s town hall was mixed. Some online comments indicate community members would like more engagement during town halls. “This wasn’t a Town Hall. This was a talk show,” states one comment. “A Town Hall allows questions from the public. There wasn’t a chat button. No one could speak during the meeting. No one could ask questions.”
The City of Auburn responded, explaining “because we had a mix of updates from departments and direct panel discussion, we utilized our survey in the weeks ahead of the event to have residents submit questions. We will be holding additional town halls each month this year focused on particular topics, including homelessness. Because they will not have a two-part focus, they will be a more traditional format with a moderator and live question options.”
You can find information about future town halls: http://auburnwa.gov/townhalls. The next town hall is currently scheduled for April 9, 2021, as a Youth Town Hall with the Auburn Junior City Council.