Updated Wednesday morning with links to Citizens Levy Committee report and dissenting report.
Exactly what form it might take is uncertain, but a levy proposal appears to be gaining support among Edmonds City Councilmembers and could be on the ballot as early as August of this year.
Mayor Mike Cooper in March proposed a $2.26 million levy focused on restoring the police department’s crime prevention program, funding street overlays and providing money for park facilities, including the city’s beloved flower program and Yost Pool. The Council-appointed Citizens Levy Committee, led by Councilmember Diane Buckshnis, came up with its own recommendations that include multiple levies targeted at specific programs, including funding $1.5 million annually in street paving projects for three years. You can read the full Citizens Levy Committee report here and a dissenting report, offering some interesting additional perspectives, here.
Council President Strom Peterson and Councilmembers DJ Wilson and Steve Bernheim have already signaled they are ready to support a levy in some form. Councilmember Michael Plunkett, who declared via email a few weeks ago that he would not back a levy aimed at subsidizing the city’s operating budget, said he was keeping an open mind about some type of levy proposal. And both Buckshnis and Councilmember Lora Petso, who have expressed ongoing frustration with the quality of the city’s financial statements, said that they also will be receptive to levy options although they will keep pushing for more accurate budget numbers. (Councilmember Adrienne Fraley-Monillas was absent from Tuesday’s meeting so her current stance is unknown.)
Two upcoming sets of data that councilmembers said they would like to see before making a decision: First, Cooper said that he would be presenting to the council next week a “reset” of his original levy proposal that includes the most current budget forecasts and updated numbers based on “the best information available.” And the Council is also scheduled to hear a report May 10 from pollster Alison Peters, who is currently conducting a survey of Edmonds voters on a variety of levy options.
One area that seems to be gaining the broadest support is the need for money to support street paving projects. Under the current schedule, the city’s cash-strapped street maintenance program is on an unsustainable 85-year cycle, meaning each street would be paved once every 85 years. Cooper’s levy proposal included $704,000 annually for street overlays, but he admitted that amount was less than half the annual need of $1.5 million a year. And councilmembers have indicated they are hearing from citizens who are also concerned about the city’s backlog of street maintenance work.
Before the Council meeting started Tuesday, councilmembers met in their other role as board members of the Transportation Benefit District (TBD), formed by the city in 2008 to collect money for street projects. City Public Works Director Phil Williams, who presented the TBD’s annual report, said that the current money collected — from a $20 additional car license fee — is used to seal cracks, repair asphalt, patch potholes and perform signal maintenance, but does not generate enough revenue to cover paving projects. The last street repaved with city resources was in 2008, Williams said, and it’s estimated that 97 percent of the city’s roads need repair.
Also on the subject of streets, the council heard a presentation from City Parks, Recreation and Cultural Services Director Carrie Hite outlining how the city’s current allocation of real estate excise tax (REET) funds is used for parks expenses. Under city policy, the first $750,000 of collected REET funds is dedicated to parks with any additional money going to transportation. However, given the current economic climate those funds have not exceeded $750,000, and councilmembers have toyed with the idea of changing the allocation formula so that streets projects receive some of the REET money.
Hite said that REET funds are currently used for a variety of parks needs, including Yost pool repairs, city playground maintenance, paving of park sidewalks, trails and parking lots, and sports field upgrades. “Taking money out (for transportation projects) will affect maintenance of parks,” she said.
Councilmember Wilson acknowledged that while the parks projects were important, streets were a high priority as well. “I am certainly ready to reallocate some of those REET funds to streets,” Wilson said.
During the citizen testimony portion of the meeting, former Councilmember Ron Wambolt read a statementthat criticized the current council for not cutting staffing and reducing employee-related expenses while considering a levy. For example, the city’s Development Services department is “at boom year levels,” Wambolt said, even though the current recession means there are few construction projects to approve.