When looking to the future, one is usually benefited by first glancing backward. In Pasco's case, the past decade was, in a word, "extraordinary."
The city experienced a wave of residential growth, which brought with it the market necessary to support private investment in new retail facilities on Road 68. Pasco's population surged (from 32,000 in 2000 to 54,000 in 2009) and, along the way, the community experienced unprecedented "growing pains" -- particularly traffic congestion. While the community continues to resolve those conflicts, it has enjoyed the many benefits of the growth including more choices in retail goods and services, housing, health care and recreation. In short, the past decade was extremely good for the community overall.
Among the more notable but invisible benefits of growth during the past decade is the improved utility system. The water and sewer system have been expanded (in the growth areas) largely through the development process (at little cost to ratepayers) and in the older areas with the rate revenue generated by the new growth.
The city is midway through a 10-year, $5 million program to install plastic lining in much of the aging sewer pipe in the older part of the community. That effort will extend the life of that system by at least another 50 years. In addition, a second water plant is being constructed at the west end of the city to assure fulfillment of the domestic water needs of a growing community for decades to come.
More visible accomplishments in the past decade include: the softball complex near TRAC; replacement of 60-year-old Memorial Pool; the pedestrian overpass crossing Highway 395 at Court Street; completion of Pasco's share of the Sacagawea Heritage Trail along the shoreline; establishment of a "24/7" cable channel, including broadcasts of public meetings; and improved rental housing conditions (due to required inspections).
All of these accomplishments occurred while the city resisted the call to increase its property tax levy each year. Instead, the council deliberately helped to reduce the city's general property tax rate from a high of $3.06 in 2002 to a flat $2 per $1,000 of assessed value in 2009, representing a reduction of 35 percent over seven years.
Unfortunately, the past decade ended on a sour note. The deep recession experienced in the rest of the country was only partially felt in the Tri-Cities, largely because of the relative resistance provided by the continuing cleanup of Hanford. In Pasco, though, the unexpected turmoil in the auto industry and the deep drop in new construction pushed sales tax receipts down 16 percent for 2009, representing a loss of $1.3 million.
Given the continuing difficulties being experienced in the economy in general, and in the auto industry in particular, Pasco is unlikely to fully recover from the sales tax loss for at least two more years.
With that backdrop, the next few years are expected to be more financially challenging. Maintaining existing service levels will be the principal challenge, as revenue will not recover quickly enough to avoid hiring freezes and potential staff reductions. The problem may well get worse if the state pushes more expenditure obligations on cities and/or reduces its historical level of revenue sharing (like liquor taxes, etc.).
Despite the desire to find new solutions to meet the financial challenges, cities often find themselves constrained by archaic state or federal rules or struggling against the "status quo" mindset. An example is Pasco's effort to control its cost of library services.
While meeting the financial challenges head-on, Pasco will also need to continue its commitment to foster more commercial/industrial development. Recent state grants will assist the extension of Commercial Avenue and extend the sewer system to the east side of Highway 12. Both actions help accommodate industrial investments in those areas, totaling about 600 acres.
Of course, Heritage Industrial Center will finally reach its "ready" stage this year, as "A" Street has been widened, utilities are in place and rail service is capable of immediate extension. The 400-acre site, uniquely suited for rail service, is expected to attract private investment exceeding $400 million over the next 20 years.
Such investments will not only help sustain local service levels, but also will broaden the tax base and moderate individual tax burdens at the local level.