Citing an Edmonds City Council that doesn’t respect — or in many cases doesn’t listen to — their concerns about lack of funding for Edmonds street and sidewalk improvements, all five citizen members of the Edmonds Transportation Committee have resigned, leaving the committee’s existence in limbo, at least for now.
In a memo sent last Thursday night to the entire Edmonds City Council, Committee Chairman Don Fiene listed four issues that he says have been a source of frustration for the committee in recent months. They include the council’s failure to prioritize the use of local Real Estate Excise Tax (REET) funds for infrastructure improvements and a lack of support for the recently rejected Transportation Benefit District measure that appeared on last November’s ballot.
“Our Edmonds transportation system is the only thing funded by our general fund that is used nearly every day by every citizens,” Fiene wrote. “It is an infrastructure valued at over $30 million according to the City’s GASB (Government Accounting Standards Board) report. Our public safety services depend on it, but our politicians have neglected it.”
The city’s inability to fund paving projects for city streets has been a topic of concern raised at City Council meetings in recent years. Edmonds is currently on an 80-year cycle for street overlays, meaning that each street is scheduled to be repaved once every 80 years. (Ideally, arterial streets should be repaved every 15-20 years and residential streets every 25-35 years.) The city says that one-third of its total street system is rated “poor” or “severe” (see map). In fact, the lack of funds for street repair has forced city staff to get creative about overlays, using water utility funds as mitigation for street damage caused by already-planned water main replacements.
One reason for reduced street repair funding is slow home sales, which have meant fewer real estate excise tax revenues for City of Edmonds coffers. The city currently prioritizes its REET funds to favor parks maintenance, with the first $750,000 going to parks infrastructure and anything after that earmarked for transportation capital improvements. The economic downturn has meant no leftover REET money for streets, said Fiene, adding that the council has the ability to shift the allocation to benefit transportation projects, but so far has not done so.
Fiene, a former City of Edmonds assistant engineer who now works for the City of Bothell, said that nearly all other municipalities use REET revenue to fund street repairs. The city’s transportation infrastructure “is used daily by all our citizens, while parks is generally not,” Fiene wrote in his memo to the council. “Despite these facts, no one on the council supported this change in policy.”
According to Fiene, the council’s lack of action on REET funding left the committee with no choice but to recommend last November’s Transportation Benefit District (TBD) ballot measure, which voters defeated by a 70 percent margin.
In the email to council, Fiene said that the transportation committee had met with councilmembers “on several occasions in the year prior to the TBD vote, to discuss the city’s policy on transportation capital funding. We had recommended a reprioritization in regards to the distribution of REET funds. However, not a single member on the council was willing to change the current policy which places a higher priority on parks infrastructure than transportation infrastructure. We were finally given only one option, the ballot measure to address the transportation capital budget problem.”
Transportation Benefit Districts were created by the Washington State Legislature as an option for local governments to fund transportation improvements. The City of Edmonds formed its own district in 2008, with the Edmonds City Council acting as the district’s independent governing board. In 2009, the Edmonds TBD board authorized an annual $20 fee on vehicle license renewals within the City of Edmonds. On July 20, 2010, the board recommended asking voters in November whether to increase the TBD license fee by an additional $40, which would have raised $1 million annually for 37 street and sidewalk projects identified for possible funding. Then the TBD board, wearing its Edmonds City Council hat, voted 4-3 at the Aug. 3 council meeting to put the proposal — known as Proposition 1 — on the general election ballot.
While Proposition 1 would have addressed the backlog in street maintenance, critics expressed concern about having such a long list of projects in tough economic times, ranging from “traffic calming” to walkways. The No on Proposition 1 committee, led by Councilmember DJ Wilson, argued that supporters had not prioritized the list and also noted that because the fee was applied to everyone equally, it was a regressive tax for those on lower incomes.
The fact that one councilmember actively campaigned against the TBD proposal and that only one other Councilmember — Diane Buckshnis — showed strong support for it was another source of discouragement for the transportation committee, Fiene said. “We felt that we were left high and dry. There was no financial or political support to speak of (from councilmembers).”
Fiene’s email drew a sharply-worded response from Wilson, who told Fiene that the transportation committee “made absolutely no effort to work with council… you essentially told us what you wanted and appeared to believe that any deviation from that would be considered an offense. The manner with which the committee engaged the council regarding the TBD was not constructive. In fact, I would call it a text book case for how not to engage a legislative body,” Wilson said.
In a follow-up phone call with My Edmonds News Friday, Wilson said it was untrue that the council didn’t listen to the transportation committee: “At the end of the day we listened to the committee and we put a TBD funding proposal on the ballot and it failed miserably.” Wilson said he has in the past advocated that more money be allocated from REET funds to roads, and he also noted that Mayor Mike Cooper included $704,000 annually for street repairs as part of the levy proposal he sent to the council March 30. (Cooper did acknowledge, however, that that his proposed allocation is “less than half the annual need of $1.5 million/year” for streets.)
Buckshnis told My Edmonds News that she is “very disappointed and saddened” by the committee members’ resignation. “I personally attempted to do all I could to help the committee’s voice be heard,” Buckshnis said, adding that she will recommend that the council look at “a specialized levy that will address overlays.”
Council President Strom Peterson, who was one of four councilmembers voting to place Proposition 1 on the ballot, told Fiene he was “saddened but not shocked by the committee’s decision. I share in your frustration and also accept responsibility for not pushing harder on transportation issues.” According to Peterson, councilmembers are scheduled to meet as a Transportation Benefit District board on April 26, followed by a council meeting, and he intends at that time to introduce the idea of allocating more REET money to transportation capital improvements.
What’s next for the transportation committee itself, which is an advisory committee to the Mayor? Bertrand Haus, the City of Edmonds Transportation Engineer who provides the group with staff support, said that the eight-member committee has been operating with five members in recent months and was ready to advertise for additional members when the resignations occurred. While Fiene’s resignation memo on the committee’s behalf was addressed to “Councilmembers, Mayor,” Edmonds Mayor Mike Cooper’s email wasn’t included in the original message, so Cooper hadn’t seen it until My Edmonds News inquired Friday about his plans to respond. As a result, Cooper said he wanted to research the issue before discussing the committee’s future.