BREMERTON — The two candidates vying to be mayor of Bremerton for the next four years — current Mayor Patty Lent and her challenger, City Councilman Greg Wheeler — strongly agree that economic development and business growth in the city is essential to its future vitality.
They just disagree how to get there.
The general election is Nov. 7. The mayor is elected to a four-year term and is the full-time, salaried chief executive officer of the city.
Lent has occupied the mayor’s office since being elected in 2010. The small-business owner and certified mortgage banker has an extensive record as an elected county commissioner (2003-06) and board member of a number of community organizations.
The mayor’s economic-development strategy centers on active recruitment of out-of-state companies to relocate to Bremerton. She hired an economic development manager earlier this year to handle the details and to survey building owners about their square-footage capacity and lease and rental rates.
Wheeler also has been an active community board member and has served as Bremerton City Council president. The U.S. Navy veteran and retired Puget Sound Naval Shipyard employee is co-owner of NestEgg Properties, and believes the answer to luring new business is to accelerate a phase-out of the Business & Occupation (B&O) tax. He also believes the city’s permitting process is cumbersome and lengthy, costs new businesses money with its delays, and is in need of streamlining.
Wheeler sees a three-step process for reforming the B&O tax: Remove it for new businesses opening up shop in the city; cap the tax for existing businesses; and eventually phase it out.
“When businesses take out debt for building upgrades or to meet additional payroll reserves,” Wheeler said, “we won’t be taking our additional cut from their new gross revenue. You cap it.”
He also wants to quicken the B&O tax phase-out. “I initiated the original phase-out with another council member about four or five years ago,” Wheeler said. “But we need to increase that. At a minimum, we need to double the phase-out. That will make for a better environment for businesses to start up in. Their chances of success are much greater when they can devote more of their gross revenue toward business operations.”
Lent, however, said eliminating the B&O tax is attractive in theory, but wanting in actual practice.
“Unless we can do some annexation to bring in a new revenue source, I don’t see how we can eliminate the B&O tax,” Lent said.
“I see where we can cap it, maybe at 60 percent. In 2018, my current budget has $180,000 that is exempted from any business before they have to pay any B&O tax. A lot of our small businesses make right up to, or under, that (amount).”
Lent said the B&O tax is a major pillar of Bremerton’s city revenue structure. This year, she said, the tax is bringing in $3.4 million, the city’s third-largest revenue source. It’s an amount that’s paid mostly by auto dealers.
“We haven’t had a problem [with the B&O tax],” Lent said. “We have three different areas in the B&O tax: wholesale, retail and services. The lowest amount is .0015 percent” of revenue.
Lent said her challenger wants to get rid of the tax during his term as the city leader. But Lent said that, as a council member, he has the authority to do that now.
“He’s telling people he wants to get rid of it,” she said. “I have to tell you that is a function of [the] council. When I write a budget, they’re the ones that have said that they want to increase that exemption $20,000 annually. I would have capped it this year at maybe $200,000.
“We’ll see what they do when we start the budget process [on Nov. 2].”
Lent said since Bremerton is a charter city, the mayor’s responsibilities pale compared to that of the City Council.
“He feels that since council is part-time, that they have a minor responsibility to the residents. And yet, they have a specific responsibility, and that is writing [city] code, the laws, the resolutions and the policies that I carry out as an administrator. They create, provide and approve those before I take it and provide services to our residents.”
If elected, Wheeler said he’ll take on an initiative to reform another part of city government: Revise and prioritize its processes, particularly those involving permitting.
“That means at City Hall, we invest in technology and other resources for the permitting and licensing people,” he said.
“We speed up that process. We improve it to the point where we get folks in and out of our office. We’re the last city in the state to do this. If we can do it 30 days faster, I’ll be able to show the council and the citizens what 30 days means to a business.”
Wheeler said there will be enough data to show what an extra month per year for a new startup means in sales-tax return for the city. The council president also said that additional time for companies to do business means increased opportunities for city residents to purchase goods and services, increasing sales-tax revenues.
“This will mean more employment opportunities. Ultimately, a lot of our vacant commercial buildings, which have been vacant so long they’ve become a blight, start to get filled.”
Wheeler also said zoning regulations need to be revisited. “We need to prove we’re friendly and ready for innovation and technology. As mayor, not only will I be working with landowners and building owners, startup businesses and recruiting, [but I’ll] make sure Olympic College is onboard with training a new workforce.”
Lent said she believes Bremerton is on “an upward trajectory.” She said she’s working with a company from Colorado on an innovation center or pavilion in the city, and has identified two sites for construction.
The airport area is especially primed for development, Lent said.
“It will be my focus for the next four years,” she said. “We need infrastructure, but we need manufacturing and light industrial because we have those 3,400 acres. I’m working with Mason County, the landowners and some aerospace companies that I feel are going to be the appropriate thing at the airport.”
Wheeler said the city — while seeking new business to relocate — needs to pay greater attention to those that are departing from its city limits.
“With the hospital leaving and taking 1,000 jobs, that’s coming soon,” he said. “I can’t tell you how much that concerns me. It should concern everybody into wondering how are we going to replace those jobs?”