ST. GEORGE — According to the results of the area’s municipal elections that were made official mid-November, Kress Staheli will become Washington City’s newest mayor in over a decade once he take assumes office in January.
When the initial numbers for the city’s mayoral race between incumbent Mayor Ken Neilson and Staheli began to be rolled out the night of Nov. 2, they put Staheli in a lead that was solidified eight days later when the Washington City Council adopted the official election results.
Staheli, a Washington City native who was raised in the downtown area and now lives in Washington Fields, unseated the three-term mayor with 4,607 votes to Neilson’s 2,298 votes.
“It feels like a new day in Washington, a new chapter,” Staheli said as he spoke to St. George News in front of the Washington City Office last week. He repeated how he was humbled by the citizens’ support for him and vowed to be available to them as much as possible so they knew they have a voice in the city.
Between now and January, Staheli will continue to serve as a member of the City Council until he vacates that position to assume the mayor’s role. This will be in the middle of his second term on the council, the first having been served between 2011 and 2015. Two years before that, he served on the city’s Planning Commission, a role Staheli said he took on at the suggestion and support of Neilson.
Staheli gave credit to Neilson and Terrill Clove, who served as the city’s mayor from 1994 to 2009, for the way they’ve led the city during a time of increasing growth and dealing with the challenges that came with it.
“They are pillars in the community,” Staheli said.
The foundation and direction the two men have taken the city is something Staheli said he plans to learn from and build upon as he becomes the next mayor.
Outside of his ongoing and transforming role as an elected city official, Staheli owns and operates an insurance and financial services business, which he said has allowed him the flexibility to continue serving the public.
Once he is sworn into office, Staheli will also be the fourth generation of his family to have held the mayor’s seat, he said. An uncle, grandfather and great-grandfather have each served as Washington City’s mayor in the past.
As for what the mayor-elect’s vision for Washington City is, Staheli said he wants to bring the city’s residents closer together and promote a sense of connection that also celebrates the city’s heritage.
While there is the central portion of Washington City and its downtown community, much of the growth over the past two decades has occurred in the Coral Canyon, Green Springs and Washington Fields areas.
Staheli shared his thoughts on the city’s need to be smart with its continuing growth and how to address the infrastructure – like water – needed to keep up with it. He also spoke on the future of development in Washington Fields and once more touched on the desire to promote the city’s “unique heritage.”
On commercial and residential growth
“We’re not going after growth,” Staheli said. “We’re letting the private sector came to us. We’re also being cautious with that growth, one step at a time.”
The city sports a population of around 30,000 and has had no shortage of residential development.
The influx of residential growth has outpaced the city’s commercial development, which poses a problem as far as maintaining the revenue source needed to fund daily city and public safety operations.
A large part of the city’s general fund comes from taxes, the bulk of which are from property and sales taxes. Sales tax revenue, which is garnered from the city’s commercial sector, tends to make up a majority of the collected tax revenue that funds city services. If the sales tax falls short, it can result in property taxes being hiked in order to make up any shortfall. So, the more sales tax there is, the less likely property tax will go up.
Staheli and the City Council have repeatedly stated they have no desire to see property taxes in the city increase, and thus are promoting commercial development like that seen around Exit 13.
“We’re really excited about what’s happening there,” he said.
City officials have also been in meetings with a group interested in industrial development near the St. George Regional Airport, Staheli said.
While some of these projects will bolster the city’s sales tax revenue, they will also provide new jobs – high-paying jobs – for area residents. Yet, while bringing in high-paying jobs has been a goal of Washington City and the surrounding communities, there is a question that goes along with it – where are the people who get those jobs going to live?
Like the rest of the county and state, Washington City is also experiencing a housing crisis due to a lack of affordable housing options on the market.
“The housing is certainly a challenge,” Staheli said.
There has been talk of an ordinance being drafted that could require developments to build units that are on the spectrum of “attainable housing,” Staheli said. There is also some high-density residential development proposed for an area off Washington Dam Road, he said.
For now though, the City Council looks to the general plan and considers whether or not a proposed development is a good fit and benefit for the community or not, Staheli said.
“I would love for the Fields to stay exactly as they are, but I know that’s not possible,” Staheli, who lives in the area, said.
Property owners and developers in Washington Fields have a right to sell and build accordingly, he said, though noted the city can still influence how the growth looks in the Fields area.
“A challenge and opportunity we have is to find a way to maintain a connection to out agricultural heritage through the Fields,” Staheli said.
The city is working with developers on ways to help keep a semblance of the area’s heritage alive and help tell the story of why it is called Washington Fields.
As for commercial development in Washington Fields, there are spots set aside for it in the city’s general plan. Some of it is also set up along the Southern Parkway. In one of these areas, city officials are moving ahead on creating design standards that will be in harmony with the surrounding community.
“We’re looking to try and get it right and trying to be very selective,” Staheli said of commercial development in Washington Fields in general.
“We live in a desert – we need to act like it,” Staheli said, adding that this is a phrase he picked up from a Nevada water manager. “That’s where I am with water.”
Though the need to conserve water has become ever more evident over this past year due to the ongoing drought, Staheli said efforts to educate the public about being water-wise have worked so far and proven successful in reducing water use in the past. People in Washington City and the county overall have also been converting to more efficient water-use practices, he said.
Spreading education over enforcement is how Staheli hopes to continue getting people to adopt water-wise practices. Moving forward though, it is likely the city will adopt ordinances for new commercial and residential construction regarding the installation of water-efficient systems and landscaping as recently discussed during a water summit hosted by the Washington County Water Conservancy District and Washington County Commission.
“I can’t see the city being heavy-handed in any way with existing residents but can see us continuing to educate residents on the importance of being wise stewards of water and also possibly incentivizing them to remove large areas of turf that don’t necessarily need to be there,” he said.
Over 50% of the culinary, or drinking-quality, water used in the city and across the county goes toward watering outdoor landscaping. Both city and county officials and water managers hope to reduce that percentage by encouraging residents and businesses to eliminate excess turf on their property while also switching to water-efficient plants for landscaping purposes.
“Water use outside the home is critical,” Staheli said.
In addition to promoting water conservation, Washington City is looking at creating a pressurized irrigation system intended to replace the culinary water being used for outdoor watering. Whether that remains a city-level project or is done in cooperation with the Washington County Water Conservancy District remains to be seen, the mayor-elect said.
Washington City has a unique heritage and history, Staheli said. It was the focal point of the Cotton Mission in the 1850s set up by Latter-day Saint settlers and positioned between various springs that supplied the new community with its water.
“The cotton factory is unique to Washington City, and so is the Boilers spring and Shinob Kibe,” Staheli said.
Staheli said he hopes to promote the unique feel and heritage of Washington City so it is recognized more for itself and is not so easily overshadowed by its larger neighbor, St. George.
“We’ll never be as large as St. George, but we can learn from St. George, and we can get to the point we’re not always shopping and working in St. George,” he said, once more mentioning the need for more commercial development in the city. “In time, those who live in Washington will be able to work in Washington.”
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