It’s been six months since the Edmonds City Council appointed Mike Cooper as Edmonds mayor, replacing Gary Haakenson who resigned in June to become Deputy Snohomish County Executive. My Edmonds News had an opportunity last week to sit down with Cooper and talk about his decision not to sign the City of Edmonds 2011 budget, the city’s need for additional revenue, and how the upcoming November 2011 elections (with four council seats and the mayor’s own job on the ballot) are likely to influence the council’s activities in the next several months.
Cooper also spoke enthusiastically about the positive impact he believes that creating a strategic plan will have on the city’s economic development. (The council allocated $100,000 in the 2011 budget to hire a consultant to develop a strategic plan, as recommended by the city’s 17-member Economic Development Commission.)
Q: What did it mean exactly when you decided not to sign the council budget? Does it still become law?
A: State law gives me 10 days to act or not act. I can sign, I can veto, which means I have to send a letter stating my objections,and the council needs to override with a supermajority. The third option is to let it sit for 10 days, and it becomes law. That’s really more of a statement than anything else, to not sign it. It says to the council, “You passed the budget, I disagree but I recognize that with a 6-1 vote, you’re going to override my veto anyway. So I’m just not going to sign it.” I felt like I could get my message out to the community just as well by doing what I did. It doesn’t really change anything. It becomes law but it will show up with the City Clerk’s signature on it and not mine.
Q: You mentioned that you are looking forward to working on the strategic plan. Yet some people have said they are worried this will be just another plan that sits on the shelf. What makes this approach different?
A: It’s always dependent on whether or not the mayor and the council choose to say let’s use this as our guideline or let’s put it on the shelf. What you end up with is some goals and priorities for economic development, for land use, with some sort of guiding principles, if you will, that we can use to move forward. And so when there’s a debate about whether to buy a piece of property – like the Skipper’s debate – you can look back and say OK, the priorities that we have in our strategic plan don’t quite fit and you can use those guiding principals to make your decision on how to move forward.
On the economic development side, it presumably would lay out a strategy for what kinds of businesses we want, where do we want them to locate, what do we need to do to get them here. Do we want big box stores, do we want strip malls? What do we want it to look like when it’s all done.
In particular, when you are in difficult budget situations, you could actually use some of the priorities that might be in the strategic plan for budgeting purposes. We can really say, “Is this the community‘s highest priority and if it is, we shouldn’t make cuts here. And how does it fit into our strategic plan? What happens, what are the down sides if we do make cuts?”
Q: Will the community be involved in developing the strategic plan?
A: Yes. What that community involvement looks like depends on the consultant as different consultants do it different ways. We don’t really have organized neighborhoods like some cities do. There’s only a few places where the neighborhoods are really organized because typically in Edmonds people organize around issues. I think that will be the challenge – how to get the best community involvement. But the good consultants can figure that out.
I think that’s how it will be successful: To have community involvement as opposed to what some people refer to as the 3-minute speakers at city council meetings. It’s more than just the people who show up at council meetings; there will be more outreach to make sure we’re getting out. I think that’s been the success of the Economic Development Commission – it’s 17 people and a really good, broad cross-section of folks.
Q: In general it seems like engaging citizens is a challenge. What are your plans as mayor to do that?
A: I think that community meetings are helpful and you’ll probably see me do more really informal community meetings with no agenda. The starting point is to get into the groups that are already organized: the Senior Center, Rotary Club, Exchange Club and the Kiwanis, all those service clubs, to get them interested and to be part of the strategic planning process or any process. What we’re interested in really is the views of people who don’t come to city council meetings. We already know the views of people who are there every week.
Finding ways to engage people is really going to have to be both in the strategic plan and as we move forward in developing the budget or a levy or whatever we do. It’s a challenge. Quite frankly, I think that’s probably one of the difficulties with group working on the levy. It’s a closed group of 7-10 people who meet twice a month and there’s this group of 40,000 other people out there who might have opinions. They (the Citizens Levy Committee) might come up with what they think is a great idea and the city council might come up with they think is a great idea. But just like the Transportation Benefit District $40 car tab vote, the voters didn’t think it was a great idea.
Q: Do you think we need a levy?
A: I think we need revenue, and how we put that to the voters is where we should be focused. How much do we need and how do we ask the voters for it? I think there are options. One of them is a straight operating levy, one of them is a police and parks levy. We probably need between $3-to-4 million dollars in the next couple of years as we get into 2013, 2014 and our reserves take a nose dive. And the longer we wait to do it, the more problem it creates. For example, if we did it (passed a levy) now and started collecting the revenue, it would change the forecast for all those out years because the revenue would be coming in. We need something. We don’t really have any taxing authority left without going to the voters.
We’ve got some little things we could do that wouldn’t be very popular and probably would hurt our business economy, like having a B&O tax or raising the cost of business licenses. I’m thinking of all the things that Lynnwood did and Seattle did and wondering how that’s going to affect those cities, like charging $4 an hour for parking. It’s difficult to implement pay for parking in a city that’s never had it, and I’m not sure that’s the best answer for Edmonds. I think we’re known for people being able to come here and not having to pay to park.
Q: What do you say to those people who believe there are additional ways to cut the budget?
A: I think that’s where the outreach can help. Every place I go, I take the message about all the cuts we’ve already made and here’s what will happen if we make more cuts. People have to know, service will suffer. That’s the message I deliver to people. Are there more cuts? Oh yeah, we could count paper clips and pencils and cell phones, but those cuts won’t make the difference – and we’ve made a lot of those cuts.
It’s troubling to me that the group of people who think we can cut more are focused on asking us to continue to ask our employees to give back more. I gotta tell you, you can only ask your employees to give back so much and it’s not because they’re union or not union. If you want to keep good employees, you have to treat them fairly. This group of employees in this city – both the union and non-union employees – have worked together with the mayor and city council to make the necessary agreements. In 2011, the management employees – the 40 non-union employees who keep getting brought up at the council meetings – got no COLA (cost of living adjustment). The current city policy allows me to give up to 3 percent merit pay, and I only budgeted for 1 1/2 percent and told them that’s the best we’re going to do. We are making those kind of adjustments and both the non-union and the union employees understand.
I don’t think it’s fair to compare Edmonds to state government or King County government where they have millions and billions of dollars of deficit and they’re in a lot different situation than we are. We‘ve tightened our belt and historically we haven’t allowed our union contracts or our employee base to be bloated in this city.
Q: This coming election year, four councilmembers and the mayor are up for re-election. How is that going to change the debate?
A. I think there will be some election year antics. There are always are. Often times what you see is nothing happening because it’s just posturing. It’s an interesting group of people who are on the council and they’ve all got issue that matter to them individually. And then it’s the question of some of them who aren’t running, who will be running against me? You have council members who are going to do what they need to do to try to raise their issue to a higher level so it keeps the debate alive. So you’ll see more discussions about buying pieces of park property that we decided several years ago not to buy, and I’m sure there will be more discussion about transparency in our financial reporting.
I’m hoping that council members will stay focused on where we need to go in the long term, but typically that doesn’t happen during an election year, especially the later it gets. We really need to put something on the ballot this year in terms of a levy, and I’m not sure we can get there because it’s an election year. Council’s going to have to be pretty brave to make that decision and I think it’s disastrous if it’s – like the TBD was – a 4-3 decision to put it on the ballot. It’s got to be 6-1 or 7-0 vote.
I’m not sure we can get there because there will be some people who want to tack on money for Yost Pool or do all these other things and then the question is, does it get too big to where the voters won’t vote for it? One school of thought is to keep the levy to the $3 million or $4 million we need and be successful with that. If we make some really firm commitments on what we’re going to do and then people see us follow through with that commitment, then that’s the time to go out and ask for a bond issue for the Senior Center or Yost Pool. But to try to mix them is a little dangerous.
Q: What would be the next step if the council doesn’t put a levy on the ballot or if the levy fails?
A: We’ll have to find places to make cuts. In 2012, we can get by, but if I know we’re not going to make any more money, I’ll have to make some cuts in 2012 to be ready for 2013 and 2014. And I may (need to make cuts) if the economy continues to bump along like this, especially now that housing prices are staying so low. Even though we’re selling houses, housing values have got to go back up for us to see any substantial change in those revenue collections. Even if the economy gets better, we have to have new revenue. And if that doesn’t happen during 2011, then 2012 will be the time that we start making difficult decisions and they won’t be the decisions that people will like
The cities that are in tough shape are the cities that have spent down their reserves And we’re not in such bad shape because our reserves (with an ending fund balance of $2.6 million to $2.8 million) are pretty healthy. Then we have the emergency reserve which is $1.9 million and then the Fire District One money that’s $1.3 million — but that is one-time funding. That’s the kind of money you spend to make payroll when you run out of money.