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Originally published Friday, October 26, 2012 at 9:00 PM

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Residents near Burien, Renton to vote on annexation

Burien's proposed annexation of North Highline and Renton's proposed annexation of West Hill have raised questions about their ability to serve those areas in the face of ongoing financial problems.

Seattle Times staff reporter

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Community activists who want Burien to annex White Center, and Renton to take control of Skyway, say the cities would be better able to provide services than the current local government, King County.

But opponents of the two ballot measures say the cities have financial troubles of their own that would only deepen if they were to take on areas unable to pay their own way.

Voters in the 17,400-resident North Highline area, which includes White Center, will decide Nov. 6 whether to become part of Burien, boosting the city's population to 65,000 and moving its border to Seattle's southern edge.

West Hill, which includes the Skyway, Lakeridge and Bryn Mawr neighborhoods, is voting on annexation of its 14,600 residents to Renton. If voters were to approve the measure, Renton would also become Seattle's next-door neighbor and Renton's population would hit 108,000.

The annexations would continue a trend that over the past 20 years has moved most of King County's unincorporated urban areas into cities through annexation or creation of new cities.

King County Executive Dow Constantine recently urged North Highline residents to vote for annexation, writing in a letter that the county "can no longer afford to provide the level of urban services" residents expect.

Many North Highline and West Hill roads were recently designated "tier 5" — meaning the cash-strapped county road fund will reduce maintenance, possibly to the point where pavement eventually would be replaced with gravel.

Some residents say they're happy with the service provided by King County and local fire districts, and they question the cities' financial ability to do a better job.

The Renton and Burien city councils had their own concerns about the cost of annexing the two areas. Both councils voted 4-3 to put the proposals on the ballot.

Despite their own financial hardships, both cities say they would find a way to provide North Highline and West Hill residents with the same level of service their current citizens receive.

West Hill

The Skyway area needs help to cope with crime and rejuvenate a decaying business district whose grocery stores and drugstore have closed, leaving a casino as one of its leading businesses.

Because residents have Seattle addresses, many mistakenly think they live in Seattle, said organizational consultant and annexation promoter Dian Ferguson.

"Once people are more informed and recognize that they're not part of the city of Seattle, then they're excited about the possibility of making changes to the community in a positive way," she said.

Opponents say taxes will go up, and they claim police and fire protection will suffer. The Renton Fire Department would replace Fire District 20 and eliminate the volunteer firefighters who supplement the paid staff. Annexation foes also say the community would suffer from the Renton Police Department's planned closure of the sheriff's storefront station

"We're basically saying we're going to pay more taxes for what we think is no better, and in some cases lower, levels of services and other vague promises that things are going to be better. Vague promises don't make a whole lot of sense," said Paul Berry, a project-management consultant and critic of annexation.

Police and fire protection wouldn't be reduced, said Renton Chief Administrative Officer Jay Covington. The police department would hire about 30 new officers, initially patrolling West Hill around the clock with four officers in two cars, he said.

With traffic and special-operations officers also available, police would crack down on criminals in Skyway, Covington said: "If they want to go up there and create mischief, we want them to understand we're going to find them and run them out of there. We're not going to tolerate it."

The storefront police office no longer would be needed because the police headquarters isn't far away, Covington said.

If annexation is approved, the owner of a $250,000 home would see property taxes drop but would pay utility taxes not collected by King County. The higher tax burden of $78 a year would be more than offset by a $225 reduction in garbage and compost fees for a home with a 35-gallon garbage can, the city calculates.

Mayor Denis Law urged the City Council in June to put off an annexation vote, saying the city would struggle to pay for $4 million in startup costs plus a $1.3 million annual hit to the general fund. The general-fund loss would grow to $4.5 million when a 10-year annexation sales-tax credit expires.

North Highline

Since Burien annexed the southern half of North Highline two years ago, "one of the things that's really noticeable is the improvement in the parks: a lot of maintenance that had been deferred by the county, some improvements and a lot of cleanup."

Those are the words of former City Councilmember Stephen Lamphear, who is campaigning for annexation of White Center and the rest of North Highline.

The new Burien residents wouldn't just see services improve, Lamphear said, they also would be more able to influence a locally elected city council than a county council with members from far-flung areas.

Mark Ufkes, a local business leader, doesn't buy those arguments. King County, he said, has worked with community volunteers to spruce up local parks and improve sidewalks, and "I see sheriff's deputies' cars in White Center all the time."

"Annexation should be a process that improves the quality of life of our neighborhoods and makes things better," Ufkes said. "I don't believe at all that annexation to Burien is going to do any of that."

City officials say the net effect of lower property taxes and new utility taxes would be an additional $140 a year for the owner of a $200,000 home. Annexation foes claim the real cost would be $400. That's based on the assumption the city would raise a variety of taxes in the future, Ufkes explained.

Burien, like many other cities, is struggling to pay its bills, and the problem is expected to get worse.

Because annexation would bring in a $5 million annual tax credit to the city for 10 years, it would help in the short run and be "fiscally neutral" in the long run, according to a consultant's fiscal analysis for the city.

City officials haven't figured out how to deal with some of the short-term financial challenges, let alone "the year 11 issue," when the annexation tax credit would expire. City Manager Mike Martin says that annexing White Center, which is showing some signs of revitalization, may provide part of the answer.

"I just don't think an area that is juxtaposed the way it is next to major universities, airport, major hospitals, will remain the same," Martin said. "It can't. It's a matter of guiding that growth, and then the economics will follow."

Keith Ervin: 206-464-2105 or kervin@seattletimes.com

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