Citizen Harry: Levy committee can learn from Lake Forest Park failure

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Harry Gatjens

This is the latest in a continuing series of reports by “Citizen Harry” Gatjens on the 2010 Edmonds Citizens Levy Committee.

The Edmonds Citizens Levy Committee met again this past Monday at City Hall. One of the first things we were given was a copy of Mayor Mike Cooper’s new proposed budget. This is an incredibly important part of the process, as without the budget you can’t really determine whether the City needs more money. While the budget still needs approval by the City Council, this is a good starting point.

The mayor’s budget actually provides a little comfort to the Levy Committee, as it shows the City not having deficit spending until 2013. Of course, in order to achieve that, the mayor had to take out some items that council members think might need to stay. So the negotiations begin.

Also, it is good to realize that even if the levy committee determines there is need for an additional levy, the earliest it can go for a vote is in 2011 and, if it passes, money won’t be collected until 2012. So we really do need to look several years out.

Next we had a speaker from Lake Forest Park, Sara Phillips, who is in charge of Community and Government Affairs. Sara gave us Lake Forest Park’s experiences in both determining the need for a levy and then describing how they presented it to the citizens.

She spoke for quite sometime and shared much useful information.Lake Forest Park’s strategy was to just lay out the facts about what it costs to run the city and let the citizens know that if they wanted to keep the current level of services, taxes would need to rise an average of $120 a year or $10 per month.

The Lake Forest Park mayor then offered to go to any citizen’s home and have a “coffee klatch” and explain the situation and answer questions. Quite a number of people responded, and each of these meetings seemed to go well, with citizens supporting the idea of the levy.

Following these were larger-scale public meetings attended by an organized anti-levy group that tended to dominate the microphone. The anti-levy group also was funded by more than a 3-1 margin over the pro-levy group.

The end result was the Lake Forest Park levy failed miserably and the city is now facing severe cuts. The police department will be cut, Sara’s own job is scheduled for elimination and other services will be curtailed.

Some items learned were: 1. The message is clear that the masses think government is oversized. Our own city has been reducing staff for over a decade, but because it has been incremental reductions, no one will note the significance of the efforts. 2. Don’t underestimate the power of opposing groups. They are well organized and will seize every opportunity to make the case against a levy. 3. Don’t minimize the impact of a levy by saying “It’s only $10 a month” or as some of our politicians have said about the Proposition 1 Transportation Benefit District increase, “It’s only a cup of coffee a month.” These kind of comments seem elitist to the voters. Better to acknowledge the total amount of the impact and say we know it is a burden but unfortunately that is what it costs to keep the kind of services our citizens want.

It was an excellent presentation and gave us much to think about.

Following the presentation, committee reports were given. The expense committee continues to examine volumes of data, looking for potential savings. Darroll Haug prepared a model so that we could determine for differing amounts of dollars needed, what the impact would be on a single home. This will come in quite handy when we begin to prioritize projects.

We are still having difficulty obtaining clarity as to how certain amounts are classified within funds. There is no question of missing amounts — they are all there. The question is how to properly classify them.

A suggestion was made that the City of Edmonds might want to consider casino gambling as a new source of revenue. Shoreline and Mountlake Terrace both bring in huge amounts from these operations. Obviously this is something that requires further study.

This was one of our more productive meetings both in terms of information gathered and movement toward trying to piece together a final solution.

Join us for the next meeting, scheduled for 5:30 p.m. on Thursday, Oct. 21, third floor of City Hall.

10 COMMENTS

  1. Thanks, Harry. I would offer a different view on a couple of key matters, however.

    Your statement about “the City not having deficit spending until 2013” is a common one, but one I take exception with every time I hear it. As you know, a deficit occurs when spending is greater than revenue or income. That happens in 2012, according to the mayor’s budget – after some creative and smart budgeting for 2011 to avoid this scenario – where annual expenditures exceed annual revenues by about $700,000. In other words, we have a projected deficit of $700,000 for 2012. To fund this, we have to dip into our savings.

    Now, I understand that in municipal finance, it’s common to count our “savings” (or ending fund balance, or working capital – whatever the name) as “revenue.” But I take issue with that approach. The distinction between savings (or reserves) and income (or revenue) is among the most basic in finance and accounting. That we mix it up doesn’t mean that we get new rules for how a deficit should be explained to the citizens.

    We spend more than we take in over the course of FY2010, and have to dip into our savings to cover it. Our deficit is closer than 2012 – running all of our savings down while we ponder a levy isn’t a responsible approach, in my view.

    Regarding the Lake Forest Park levy, let me say that I am familiar with the politics of Lake Forest Park due to my work on the Lake Ballinger Forum. In short, while I know that the explanation above is the refrain from the administration, the Council has a much different view.

    In short, the community was engaged and they gave feedback. A proposal was put together, which had broad support. Then, the administration there changed the scope of the supported proposal, to better reflect the opinion of the administration. Citizens didn’t care for this “bait and switch” as they saw it, and some of them organized an opposition out of principle.

    Bottom line: the lesson of LFP is more complicated than their staff appear to have presented to the levy committee.

    The real lesson, in my view, of their approach is this: if you ask citizens what they think, you better be prepared to listen to them. Discard their guidance at your own peril.

  2. Excuse me – due to my lack of proofreading, let me clarify one thing.

    I said: “We spend more than we take in over the course of FY2010, and have to dip into our savings to cover it. Our deficit is closer than 2012 – running all of our savings down while we ponder a levy isn’t a responsible approach, in my view.”

    I meant to refer to FY 2012 as the year we slip into deficit spending, not FY2010. And, that our deficit is closer than 2013, as a result.

  3. Remember too, that if I-1100 and I-1105 pass it will cost the city up to $500,000 a year in lost revenue and add an extra burden to our police department.

  4. The Mayor’s budget goes into a deficit in 2012 as DJ has stated, but nobody knows at this time what the numbers will be when the council is finished their work on it.. My hunch is that there may be fewer changes than in the past several years. because the council appointed this Mayor and thus far they have been giving him much more leeway than was given to our elected Mayor.

    I believe that there are expenses that can be cut. For example, why does the city need an expensive Development Services Director at this time? There are also probably other cuts in compensation that should be made. On the other hand there are some additional expenses that may need to be added.

  5. After scanning quickly through Dj’s verbosity for any possible points, I conclude once again that little useful info is there.

    And I once again recall this is the same DJ that made a motion to support Mayor Haakenson in closing Yost pool and reducing funding for the Senior Center which died for lack of a second. If that wasn’t bad enough he also threatened to build fences around all of our city parks to keep citizens out in the event of a levy failure.

    Yes sir, DJ makes one point, he has a unique way of irritating everyone.

    So Harry, keep right up doing what you are doing, you are appreciated by the majority fo citizens,

  6. @Mr. Wilson: I concur with your sentiment that we should solve the budget issues for the long term, vice planning to spend down reserves while hoping for an economic turnaround.
    @Mr. Wambolt: I propose that we do need a Development Services Director, and an effective one, in order to coordinate our development efforts throughout the City, and improve our ability to work many fronts at the same time. Right now, we have limited capacity to look ahead, as our staff is hard at work fighting today’s battles. So, I see this less as an expense, than as an investment with potentially high returns.
    @Mr. Martin: Please return to civility and positive recommendations. Our City has real and pressing issues to work with, and applying your intellect and experience to proposing substantive input is valuable.

  7. Todd; Lets see if I have your “civility and positive” comment straight: Legitmate and factual criticism of an elected official (if he is a friend of the Cloutiers’) is uncivil and negative. Well, I’m sorry Todd, but if that’s your point, then you need to save your breath for hot soup as far as I am concerned. (Suggested reading; the first Amendment)

    Here’s a bit of “substantive input” for you. Please tell DJ (DJWison.com)he should stop running for County Council. Its over, He lost in a tidal wave. And still he goes on, asking for support. And does that include money?
    Wishing you smoother sailings.

  8. @Ray: sorry, my friend, that’s not what I was speaking about at all. I was offering a third way, a way for all of us to contribute to a common solution, instead of attacking each other. We SHOULD disagree, but disagreement should always be accompanied by positive suggestions. That is how stronger solutions are made.
    I do not judge public policy positions by who my friends are, and I hope you don’t either. Friends don’t let friends pass bad policies.
    And as for elections, I believe you may have mistaken me for someone else. Not my bag. I am focused entirely on community improvement, and invite you to do the same.

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