Ken Grassi is the only current University Place City Council member who has served since U.P. became a city in 1995.
During his time on the council, he served as mayor pro tem from 2001 to 2003 and 2009 to 2011 and as mayor from 2003 to 2005 and 2011 to 2013.
“I can honestly say I love it as much now as I did then,” the owner of Grassi's Garden Café and Grassi's Ristorante said as he opened his flower shop on Monday morning.
Issues facing the city always change as projects move their way from idea to concept and then design to implementation. Some projects take months, while others take years. The city’s investment in the Town Center development, for example, has taken two decades, but has turned the corner with private investment finally topping city spending this year and more development on the way.
The council decided 20 years ago to buy the former Clocktower Square shopping center to develop a retail and civic hub at a time when the city had no community hub and a lagging retail center that was largely hidden by a 40-foot drop from Bridgeport Way. That fact made visibility a real issue.
“As retailers will tell you, that just doesn’t work,” Grassi said. “You have to be visible from the road.”
Noticing the problem, the council bought the property to turn the location into a destination of community, civic and commerce. Then the Great Recession hit and ground those plans to a halt.
“We certainly hit the nail with the recession; that really set us back,” Grassi said. “The turnaround is in reach.”
But back in those days, another topic – the addition of roundabouts on Grandview Drive and medians on Bridgeport Way – reigned as the most controversial in the city. Now, Grassi gets calls and emails from residents with suggestions of where to put other traffic circles to slow traffic and lower the number of car accidents on key intersections.
“People don’t like change,” he said. “I get that. But that went full circle, no pun intended.”
Current struggles facing the city are how to provide programs and services with limited revenues, considering that all of the city’s portion of property taxes go to just funding police services. That leaves the city to operate largely on sales taxes that fall short of costs or citizen expectations.
The city’s Transportation Benefit District, which raises between $400,000 to $600,000 a year from $20 vehicle license fees, only covers about half of the $900,000 a year road crews need to properly repair city streets. That means that either work simply doesn’t get done or comes at the cost of other programs paid through the city’s general fund. Increasing the vehicle license fees could raise the difference but would be largely unpopular with many residents, who are against increases to taxes in all forms. A roads package would likely fail, as did a police levy did years ago, and then residents voted against the formation of an independent parks district last year that would have had its own taxing authority.
“It’s not about not wanting to support youth or have programs for seniors,” Grassi said. The city’s general fund simply couldn’t afford to fund parks programs without cutting other core services.
Many of those senior programs have been taken over by the nonprofit organization Community Connection Place, which has begun operating the community center.