Edmonds City Councilmember D.J. Wilson hosted a public meeting Thursday night to focus on City of Edmonds finances and alternatives for keeping solvent while maintaining or increasing city services. In addition to the presentations, Wilson sought input from the 30 or so in attendance about the current situation and future ideas.
The meeting started out with a presentation by Mayor Mike Cooper about the current budget awaiting council approval and the implications, as it is projected out over the next five years. The city has done a great deal of belt-tightening over the past decade and has done an excellent job of pushing out into the future the day when tax increase become necessary, Cooper said. Even through 2011, the City still maintains services while retaining adequate reserves.
The mayor also mentioned the difficulties that the City of Lynnwood is having because it did spend down its reserves and is now facing massive budget cuts in an attempt to get out of a financial disaster it has created. Edmonds is being very proactive in closely monitoring its reserves to make sure that doesn’t happen here, Cooper explained.
Wilson then spoke about the efforts of the 2009 Levy Committee, recapping its advice to submit to voters a levy request for $3.75 million and suggesting that the city put together an Economic Development Commission to explore ideas that would help Edmonds’ economy — and hence, its revenue opportunities. The Edmonds City Council at first unanimously approved the Levy idea, but as political winds and pressures changed, ultimately decided to put it off. The Council did move forward and appoint an Economic Development Commission.
Frank Yamamoto of the Edmonds Economic Development commission then spoke about the commission’s work and its recommendations to the City Council. Most of the discussion revolved around the need for a “Strategic Plan” that would include surveying citizens and would serve as a roadmap for future discussions.
Several long-time residents asked how this new strategic plan would differ from several plans developed and paid for over the past 20 years and not acted upon. Yamamoto suggested that the prior plans weren’t true strategic plans and didn’t capture the real wants of the citizens. As to why this one would be different, he stated that it would be developed by professionals who know how to properly conduct these services and research and would more accurately capture the wants of the citizens. The commission was requesting $100,000 to make sure they could hire very competent consultants.
Next to speak was City Councilmember Diane Buckshnis, who gave an overview of the work of the current Citizens Levy Committee. She will make a full presentation of this work at a council meeting next month, so this is a condensed version. The Levy Committee’s number-one goal is to determine the need for a levy and then — if the council agrees to place it on the ballot — to make sure that it will pass.
Sentiment has been expressed that the current Levy Committee has been spinning its wheels since it is difficult to find too many accomplishments so far. The committee has been extensively auditing the finances of the City for the past several months, much to the annoyance of City staff as this takes much time. However, now that the auditing is done, the committee can go to the citizens of Edmonds and say “We are confident that there is little waste in the City’s operations.” This lends credibility to any finding that a levy may be needed.
Also, the committee has made a model that allows for quick calculations of what the financial impact on any homeowner would be based upon the value of any levy that is needed. The commitee is also waiting for the council to pass the city’s 2011 budget, since a key ingredient in knowing how much of a levy might be needed is a starting point of where we are financially. Once the budget is approved, we will have that.
The other task the committee has completed is extensive research on why or why not levies have passed in nearby jurisdictions. According to our research, the major factors are 1. clear demonstration of the need and 2. integrity of the message and the messengers. Without both of those factors, a levy is sure to fail.
Phil Williams, Edmonds Public Works Director, was then asked talk about the recently failed Transportation Benefit District Proposition 1. While Williams made it clear that he is not a politcal analyst and not qualified to know why the proposition failed, he did identify several problems: In addition to being affected by the general state of the economy, Proposition 1 was confusing to the public because it combined street maintenance needs with suggested future projects. In addition, the fee structure was consider regressive to some and the measure had lukewarm support from the council.
All of these factors, along with some others, played into the defeat of the measure, Williams said. One member of the audience said she supported most every tax or fee increase but in this case
Wilson then decided to make the meeting more interactive by polling those in attendance about why the initative failed. He offered several reasons for people to vote no and asked for a show of hands for each reason. Only a couple just thought that $40 created an economic hardship for some. A few others felt the “project list” was to blame. Most thought the problem was either a lack of clear communication of the need or a feeling that somehow the need was misrepresented. The amounts being raised couldn’t possibly solve the problems either for street maintenance or the projects, so this would be a never-ending fee.
All in all, this first half of the meeting was very informative and prompted good conversation.
Now to the meat of the meeting: Government 2.0, which essentially takes all the services provided by the city in the past and tries to split them off into various new entities. We have already seen this in the past with the Edmonds Library and last year with the Fire Department.
Under Government 2.0, areas like the Parks Department will become their own entities and tax citizens directly rather than going through the City’s budget. Hence, your property taxes to the city would be reduced; however, you would now have new taxes for these “spun off” departments.
Government 1.0 is where we are now. Geographic location dictates what services you get and whom you pay for them. The city is kind of the feudal lord that provides all the services — fire, parks, police, libraries, streets, water, etc. — and you pay taxes to the city for all of those services.
With Government 2.0, each of those services is provided by their own entity, perhaps county- wide or even larger geographically, and you pay taxes and fees separately to those entities. The thought being each of those entities may be more efficient by specializing in what they do. However, you are now paying several taxes rather than just one. Some of those entities may work more efficiently and save you money, however, some may not.
So is Government 2.0 cheaper for the citizen than Government 1.0? Hard to say. Several audience members questioned the true net results of such a move. Over a decade ago, the city spun off the Library and saved $1.2 million annually. The question was asked where those saving somehow returned to the citizens, who now had to pay a new library tax?
The thought behind this whole process is that it is easier to get people to approve taxes for individual services than it is to get them to approve general-fund tax increases. This is in part due to general mistrust of government and what they do with tax money. If I vote for a parks tax, I know it goes to parks.
Fire Chief Willis then made a presentation about the regionalization of Fire District 1 and how Edmonds participates in that. Currently, Edmonds is not part of Fire District 1. The City of Edmonds has a contract with Fire District 1 to provide fire services. What is the difference?
As a customer of the Fire District, it is still up to Edmonds government to collect taxes and then they pay a fee to Fire District 1. If Edmonds were regionalized into Fire District 1, you would then pay a tax to Fire District 1 and elect fire district commissioners. The City of Edmonds would not be involved in its management. Is this better? Cheaper?
Currently it costs about half as much to be an Edmonds resident and receive fire service than it does to receive fire service as a District 1 resident. But this may be temporary, as Fire District 1 is trying to reconfigure its pricing structure and perhaps in a year the costs would be comparable. Better? Depends on whether your would prefer to deal with a regional commission or your current local government when you have issues.
This discussion was followed by a general question-and-answer session. One feeling expressed was that people won’t vote for general levies anymore and that it would be best to break out various services and have separate levies (for example, a Parks Levy or Road Levy). Another point of view was that these ideas were just ways to get around the fact that we are asking citizens to raise taxes, and that reclassifying a tax increase to a more limited use would make it easier to pass.
Councilmember Wilson said he plans to have a continuing series of these meetings to further explore the possibilities.
Edmonds resident “Citizen Harry” Gatjens is providing regular reports to My Edmonds News on the workings of the Edmonds city government, including the 2010 Citizens Levy Committee and the Citizens Technology Advisory Committee.