Deputy Mayor Largo Wales, right, fields a question as Mayor Nancy Backus listens during a mayoral debate at the Auburn Performing Arts Center on Wednesday night. The Auburn Area Chamber of Commerce presented the debate. RACHEL CIAMPI, Auburn Reporter

Auburn’s mayoral race takes center stage

Incumbent Backus and challenger Wales address jobs, the homeless problem and other key issues at Chamber debate

In Nancy Backus’ eyes, Auburn’s mayoral election is about providing a successful mayor another term to build on her many demonstrable accomplishments.

As the incumbent told the nearly 500 people who came to the Auburn Performing Arts Center on Wednesday night to see and hear her debate the challenger for that office, Deputy Mayor Largo Wales, Backus has kept the promises she made to voters before her election in 2013.

That is, Backus explained, she has brought more jobs to the city, improved its streets, enhanced public safety and continues to address homelessness and drug addiction.

“When I took office, I wanted to challenge the status quo and change the way your government feels,” Backus said.

Wales’ message: by 2017, Backus is the status quo.

Wales, who supported Backus in 2013, argues she hasn’t provided the leadership the city needs to meet its economic challenges, and among other alleged shortcomings, has let the homeless problem spin out of control and failed to prioritize repair and maintenance of Auburn’s streets.

“It’s hard to take on an incumbent, but I have to,” Wales said. “Auburn needs to move forward.”

Whether Wales can sow enough doubt about Backus’ leadership to build a muscular case against her re-election remains to be seen. Backus won the Aug. 1 primary by nearly a 10 percent margin over Wales in combined King and Pierce county voting.

The general election is Tuesday, Nov. 7.

Before she became Auburn’s first female mayor, Backus, by then already 10 years on the Auburn City Council, had spent 25 years at The Boeing Co. in Auburn as a financial manager, and has a bachelor’s degree in accounting.

Wales, who has lived in Auburn since 1982, is retired from the Auburn School District and worked post-retirement with the South King County Regional Leadership Institute; consulted at the Puyallup and Orting school districts; and served as executive director of ACAP.

Wales’ educational background includes: a bachelor of arts degree, Washington State University; a master of arts degree, University of Puget Sound; a doctoral degree, Seattle University; and a post-doctoral work, Columbia University.

Backus: more jobs, higher wages

Backus said that in her term, she has brought hundreds of jobs to Auburn and energized its business climate. At $25 per hour, Auburn now has one of the highest hourly-wage rates in the Puget Sound Region, she said, and she promised to continue to bring more living-wage jobs and affordable housing to Auburn.

As for public safety, Backus said, she has hired 14 new police officers. She noted how in 2016 crime rates dropped by almost 14 percent, according to the Auburn Police Department.

Backus said she has worked from her first day in office on the homeless issue, in 2015 convened a task force to study the problem and make recommendations, and spoke with pride of the recent opening of the Ray of Hope Resource Center for the homeless adjacent to Valley Cities on I Street Northeast in partnership with the Auburn Food Bank and Valley Cities.

“Just yesterday, I was sent a photo of a client that received a free haircut and a shave at the Ray of Hope Resource Center, and now he’s ready to go out and look for work, and the person who gave that free haircut and shave used to be homeless himself, and he couldn’t wait to give back,” Backus said. “These are the transformational stories that are taking place every day, that are changing the lives of the people that are our neighbors. … Reducing the barriers to finding employment include being able to get a driver’s license or a state ID. And those successes are taking place every day down at the resource center, too.”

Yes, Backus conceded, some people aren’t interested in getting that help, and they are the ones, she said, causing vandalism, theft, drug use and unsightly and illegal encampments.

“Those persons will also be given help, most likely by our Auburn Police,” Backus said.

City struggles with homeless crisis, Wales insists

Wales criticized Backus’ record on the homeless problem.

“We are in an emergency situation. We have to move beyond token interventions,” Wales said. “Our community is vulnerable, and we need to look to a model that was proposed in this community a number of years ago, that we call the one-stop shop. … What I propose, is that in a centralized location, away from our neighborhoods, our businesses, our churches and schools, that we give a hand up, not a hand out, and that we deal constructively with those who would do our businesses and residents harm.

“We can no longer tolerate the homeless roaming the core of our city continuously, harassing businesses and residents while they search for assistance,” Wales continued. “The City of Auburn has available funds in the matched portion of its federal block grant. The council needs to have leadership to work with the City Council to adjust policy and set priorities. No more money is needed, we just need the leadership, and we need the will to do it.”

Auburn, like every city and jurisdiction, is struggling to pay for the maintenance of its streets, Backus said, and she made finding the money a priority. In 2015, Backus noted, she assembled senior citizens, high schoolers, transit riders and bicyclists and other community members to form a Transportation Advisory Board to provide staff with viable solutions.

In her term, Backus said, she has brought to Auburn $3 million in additional funding to expand road projects. That was a one-time shot in the arm, however, and not sustainable, she said. Because when the cost to redo one mile of street can surpass $9 million, the city needs big money, and a stable source of it.

“There aren’t any magic answers to finding funding for roads,” Backus said. “But we’ll continue to try. We have excellent grant writers on our team that work every day to try to have the most competitive grants.”

Money isn’t the problem, Wales said – there are dollars enough in the budget for street maintenance and repair if forward-thinking leadership were at the helm to make that a priority. The City can no longer ask Auburn’s taxed-out voters to pony up any more, Wales said, as it was on the verge of doing earlier this year with legislation that would have imposed a $20 car tab fee on Auburn car owners to raise an estimated $800,00 a year to build a street-maintenance kitty.

Instead, Wales said, what’s needed are partnerships that can work with the seven other valley cities to forge serious requests to the Puget Sound Regional Council, the panel that disperses federal street dollars.

“Again, we need forward thinking, leadership, not just one of delay or that’s crisis based, that only works in the last year of one’s term,” Wales said.

Telling them apart

Wales described what she sees as the greatest difference between her and Backus.

“Four years ago, I supported my opponent. I worked on her campaign wholeheartedly. Once in office, her doors started to close, and they’ve only partially opened in this campaign year. She is disconnected from her own City Council, neighboring cities, faith-based community and the multi-culture groups. Crime is on the increase, and homelessness is unchecked,” Wales said.

The question, she said, is whom does Backus represent?

Two years ago, Wales said, Backus met with the Pierce County Cities and Towns Association of Washington Cities, which Wales had been appointed to represent, where she, without City Council approval, committed $400,000 to “the City of Tacoma” for construction of a behavioral health addition to Allenmore Hospital. And after Auburn citizens voted 65 percent against Sound Transit 3, which Wales said, resulted in increased property taxes, triple car tabs and an ever-increasing gas tax, Backus, a member of the Sound Transit Board, went on talk radio and said, “People should have been able to read the voter’s guide more carefully.”

But the biggest difference, Wales said, is that she can work with the City Council, knows whom she represents and would advocate for all.

Backus described the differences in other terms.

“One of the differences I will tell you about is I live in a world of reality,” Backus said. “ I did not, cannot, commit $400,000 the council has not approved. Do I support it? Absolutely, because it’s for a behavioral health hospital that’s desperately needed in our community. But I can’t spend that money; not a single penny can I spend that the deputy mayor and the rest of the City Council hasn’t approved. That hasn’t been approved yet; there has been a discussion, and yes, I fully support it because we are woefully under served when it comes to mental health in this city, in this state.

“Now, as far as Sound Transit 3, yes, I am on that board, and there are benefits coming to the city of Auburn, there have been benefits from Sound Transit from the very beginning. Ask Largo how she chose to support the Sound Transit 3 ballot initiative. She voted in support of it, and now she’s flip-flopping. I don’t flip-flop, my conviction is steadfast. I work for you every day. And, by the way, that money wasn’t committed to the City of Tacoma. … That is a coalition, unprecedented, with two competing health care systems and working together to build a hospital that will serve the citizens of Auburn. Do I support it? Yes, I do, absolutely,” Backus said.

The Auburn Area Chamber of Commerce organized the debate, and Auburn Riverside High School supplied the debate team to time it and pose a few questions. KOMO TV’s Keith Eldridge was the emcee.

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