By Harry Gatjens
Many conversation are going on right now in the City Council about putting a property tax levy on the ballot on the near future. The council will be working hard on this subject at tonight’s council meeting.
Here are just a few of the questions that are being asked. We will look at more levy-related questions each week.
1. I thought the Mayor already made a levy proposal?
While the Mayor can make suggestions, only the City Council can actually propose to put a levy on the ballot. The Mayor made his suggestion in an effort to get the process moving forward.
2. What is the deal with the City’s accounting?
Several council members question the accuracy of the City’s financial statements. They say they can’t support a levy until the statements are more “transparent” and delivered in a more timely manner. There seems to be little doubt that the financial statements are for the most part accurate. No worries about misappropriated funds or major discrepancies in fund balances. The issue is that the reports made to the council are not in a format that is easy for them to understand. For the past year, this has created a climate of mistrust and heated exchanges between the administration and the council.
The problem is that if council members are continuing to question the accuracy of the City’s accounting practices, no voter can have confidence that the City really needs the extra money that they would need to pay as a result of a levy.
The City’s interim finance director said that he has reviewed the year-end 2010 statements and finds that they are within one-third of one percent of those reported in the preliminary reports provided by his predecessor, so it seems that the numbers are correct. But poor communication and lack of responsiveness to Council’s questions has led to a very antagonistic relationship. This needs to be corrected before any levy will have a chance of passing.
3. Does the City need more money for operations or for capital projects?
Both. The City currently has no money to spend to replace the surface of any roads, outside of repair work. The City is also deferring maintenance on its infrastructure and parks to the tune of about $1 million per year. It’s sort of like the old Fram oil filter commercial, “You can pay me now, or you can pay me later.” By not resurfacing some amount of roads and doing maintenance on buildings and parks each year, the city’s assets will deteriorate. If you wait too long to do maintenance, the costs of repairs will skyrocket when the things actually fail, as opposed to needing refurbishment. Most of the council supports a levy for these items as they see the need for maintenance and believe the public will too.
However, Councilmember D.J. Wilson points out that the current five-year projections show the City running at a deficit each year and actually using up all of the City’s reserves if something isn’t done to increase revenue for operations in addition to the capital projects. Some believe that the City has not yet doe enough belt tightening and there is room to reduce expenditures to reduce this need — primarily in the areas of wages and benefits. A little bit of pre-election mudslinging came up about this topic at the last Council meeting.
The truth is that both sides are probably correct. The City could negotiate more aggressively with its unions in attempt to try to gain the same sort of concessions that other governmental agencies are seeing. However, even with reductions in those expenses, ultimately the City will need more revenue or taxes.
4. Is there really a rush to get this on the ballot?
Several believe that a levy needs to be on the August primary ballot as opposed to the general election ballot in November. They think a levy would have more chance of success as the more concerned citizens are likely to come out and vote in August. Others think the General Election in November is more appropriate as you will get the vote of a larger proportion of the citizens. Plus details just haven’t been worked out and it doesn’t make sense to rush and get a bad proposal for the sake of getting it done for August. To make the August ballot, details need to be finalized in less than two weeks. With the divisions of opinion the council showed last week, this doesn’t seem very likely.
Edmonds resident “Citizen Harry” Gatjens provides regular reports to My Edmonds News on the workings of the Edmonds city government, including the Citizens Levy Committee and the Citizens Technology Advisory Committee. Gatjens, an accountant, also offers insight into the workings of the city budget.