More talk on levy, but no agreement at Tuesday Council meeting

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A variety of options and purposes — from streets to parks to police — were floated for a property tax levy during Tuesday night’s Edmonds City Council meeting, but in the end councilmembers decided to put off further discussion due both to the lateness of the hour and the desire by the Council’s Finance Committee to get further clarity on the city’s financials during a meeting next week.

Council President Strom Peterson said he is hopeful the council will be ready to take a final vote on a levy proposal by its May 17 meeting.

Edmonds Mayor Mike Cooper provided the council with what he called “very high level data” from pollster Alison Peters, who is currently conducting a survey of Edmonds voters on a variety of levy options and will present a final report at the May 10 Council meeting.

Approximately 48 percent of those surveyed so far “are willing to modestly increase their property taxes,” said Cooper, who  defined a modest increase as similar to what he included in his initial recommendation to council — about $130 per year for an average Edmonds home.

Cooper also noted the poll results include “a lot of red flags” that should be useful in guiding the council as it works to create a possible levy proposal. For starters, respondents so far say that their highest priority “is to use the money to shore up the budget to continue our current level of core services,” and have also stressed the need to focus on maintenance work rather than capital projects during these difficult economic times, he said.

More than three quarters of those surveyed said it was important for the council to present a unified — and ideally unanimous — front when voting on any levy proposal — unlike the Council’s divided 4-3 vote for the Transportation Benefit District fee increase, which failed miserably at the polls last November, Cooper added.

And respondents also said it was important to “be specific about what we are spending the money on” as opposed to stating the levy will raise taxes “and we’ll sort it out later,” Cooper said.

In other action, the council heard a review of Edmonds Planning Board recommendations regarding changes to the city code governing the installation of cell phone towers and other wireless communications facilities. The issue was prompted by complaints from Westgate neighborhood residents last summer regarding a plan from Clearwire to install a utility pole and antennas in their neighborhood.

After exhaustive review of the issue (the Planning Board met nine times in the last year to discuss it), the board and city staff determined that federal regulations require accommodation of wireless communication facilities if they are necessary to improve the wireless signal — even in a residential neighborhood or in a public park if that is determined to be the best location. In addition, such facilities can’t be regulated on basis of health impacts if they meet federal criteria for radio frequency emissions. (You can see the entire presentation made to the council here.)

What the city can do is regulate both the placement of wireless antennae and their appearance based on city design standards. The preferred placement is what is described as co-location — essentially placing a new antenna on existing sites such as a building or a utility pole. The least preferred option is to install a new monopole radio antenna, although city code is requiring them to be the tall pole-like structures rather than guyed lattice towers and they are not allowed in certain areas of Edmonds.

Councilmember Michael Plunkett suggested that the city look into whether it could require wireless companies to ensure that such monopoles are sufficiently disguised to closely resemble real trees; Councilmember Diane Buckshnis noted that many such poles in California are designed to took like palm trees. The next step is a public hearing June 7 to obtain citizen input on the proposal.

Also on Tuesday night, the Council approved a resolution supporting the Edmonds Senior Center’s effort to assist unemployed senior citizens through its Creative Transitions Program.

42 COMMENTS

  1. The pollster has not contacted me. However, I seem to agree with Edmonds, generally. I am happy to vote for a tax that will help us maintain current survices. I also want to see the Council actively work on economic development. I know we have an economic development commission that was put in place after a recommendation by a Levy Committee In 2009. It is not clear that the Council has taken any recommendations that has come from that committee. I’d like to know what kind of econimic development the Council has actually pursued.

  2. Who was still up at one o’clock this morning, working hard? Not me – I was asleep. But Teresa was evidently up, finishing up an outstanding report of what happened at last night’s City Council meeting. If you wanted to read about that meeting this morning, there is exactly one place (I checked) in the world you could go to find out.

    Edmonds is so lucky to have you, Teresa!

    (In case you were wondering, I have no affiliation with My Edmonds News. I’ve never met Teresa, or her family. I’m just another reader here.)

  3. Please excuse me. My rant was not at Teresa, it was at the Council. I do know Teresa and consider her a very good friend.

  4. I hope nobody thought my post was about Priya’s post. It wasn’t. I apologize if there was any confusion about that.

    I’m just genuinely impressed by Teresa’s work.

  5. Thanks for the kind words, Joe. My goal is to provide an objective viewpoint on what is going on in Edmonds – regardless of whether I know the folks I’m writing about or exchanging comments with. For the most part, I’d rather sit back and let all of of you hash out the issues of the day, and I’m pleased to provide a place for everyone to do that.

  6. I was not called either, but had I been I would have stated that I will vote NO to ANY levy until council and the Mayor address compensation issues and staffing issues, especially of the Development Services Department. Ron Wambolt has been diligently presenting these issues at council meetings, on myedmondsnews (see Teresa’s April 4 post: Edmonds City Council to discuss levy options Tuesday night), and Ron wrote an excellent letter to the editor which appeared in last week’s Beacon requesting the same. Thank you, Ron.

    The following is a quote from Mayor Cooper in the April 26 draft Council meeting minutes:

    “Councilmember Bernheim asked Mayor Cooper to comment on allegations that Development Services is over staffed and how he justified the $1.5 million paid in salaries and benefits to the 16 employees. Mayor Cooper explained the FTE in that department had been stable even during the boom years; staff was not added in that department during the boom years and the City received a lot of complaints about long lines and delays. Previous Councils and the Mayor did not reduce staffing because staff had not been added during the boom years.”

    Here is a link to the annual report from the Development Services Department:

    http://www.ci.edmonds.wa.us/CityDepartments/PlanningDept/Edmonds_120-day_report.pdf

    Below is an excerpt from that report, showing the number of permits, the % that took more than, and under, 120 days to process. Assuming that Mayor Cooper was referring to 2001 and 2002 as the boom years, 0% of the 162 permits filed in 2001 took over 120 days to process, and only 3% of the 188 permits filed in 2002 took over 120 days to process. In 2006, although there were fewer permits filed (110), 4% of those applications took over 120 days to process.

    Year Number permits over 120 days under 120 days

    2001 162 0% 100%
    2002 188 3% 97%
    2006 110 4% 96%
    2009 56 0% 100%

    The number of permits filed and the % processed in under 120 days is not consistent, but from where I sit a high of 4% taking longer than the 120 days is still pretty low. Such a simple chart can only say so much about the work load of staff. However, the most striking thing about these charts is that the permit applications are down from a high of 188 applications in 2002, to a low of 56 applications in 2009. The 2010 report has not yet been posted on the city website.

    Mayor Cooper’s anecdotal report that there were a “lot of complaints about long lines and delays” during the boom years and that this justifies continuing to staff Development Services at current levels, despite the fact that permit applications are less than a THIRD of what they were in boom years, shows very little respect for the taxpayer’s pocket book. His answer is also dismissive of the many citizen concerns expressed about these critical financial issues.

    I strongly recommend that Council and the Mayor delay putting a levy before the voters until these issues have been carefully, and transparently, addressed.

  7. The mayor did have Development Services staff respond to these concerns last night. I don’t have my notes in front of me, but they did include the number of building permits filed through April this year compared to April of last year. While there are fewer permits in in the works this year compared to last year, the commentary was that the types of projects people are filing permits for these days in many cases are more complex in terms of city staff involvement. That’s because they are in many cases do-it-yourselfers who don’t know what they are doing and need more staff assistance.

  8. Teresa,

    Thanks for the added information. I will be sure to review the minutes of last night’s council meeting when they come out, with a focus on justification for why the increased complexity of the permit applications received this year require staff time equal to that needed to process the 188 applications processed in 2002, or the 162 applications processed in 2001.

    Also, you state that there are fewer permit applications in the works through April this year compared to April of last year. It would be very helpful to know how many applications were processed in 2010, knowing that only 56 applications were processed in 2009.

  9. Thanks, Teresa. I just emailed Mayor Cooper asking for the online location of the report for 2010, and I will post a link to that as soon as I receive it from the Mayor.

  10. Teresa:

    The information that was presented last night went back to the 1980’s. I know that the number of permits issued in 2010 is about one-third of the number issued in 2007. It would be very helpful if you could get the value of the fees for the permits issued 2007 thru 2010, along with the numbers for each of those years.

  11. If you find out the number of permits it would aslo be useful to know how much value was added to the tax roles as a result of the new and upgraded construction. Anything added to the total assessed value help share in the tax burden.

  12. I don’t think the number of permits is likely to bounce back as much as previous recessions. (The recession technically ended almost 2 years ago.) There are at least 3 reasons for fewer remodeling permits:

    (1) Homeowners have less (if any) equity in their homes to borrow against. That’s not going to change anytime soon.
    (2) Banks are a lot less willing to issue home equity loans than they used to be.
    (3) Any interior remodel in Edmonds now (as of a couple years ago) requires you to install a interconnected smoke alarms throughout the house. (Not just in the remodeled area.) The only way out is if you have to destroy finished surfaces to do it. Permits are already an expensive item that many people consider optional, despite the legal requirement. The fire alarm requirement adds hundreds of dollars to the cost.

    I’ll bet a lot of remodeling contractors are looking for other lines of work.

  13. Joan I spoke at the meeting in regards to benefits and having the employees contribute more to help reduce the expense. As the city is in contract negotions , the council cannot say much, but I am not optimistic. More citizens need to have there opinions heard. There are so few who come to the meetings and speak any more It is a shame. But maybe it is because they dont want to be called unamerican for wanting to cut gov. and expenses. thank you Bernheim

  14. On Pryia’s question (#1 above) about the Economic Development Commission and what they are doing. The EDC was established in June of 2009 with each council member appointing 2 members and the Mayor appointing 3. You can look at the following link to find some basics about the work of the EDC
    http://www.ci.edmonds.wa.us/CitEconDevComm.stm

    We were designed to sunset at the end of 2010 but requested the council add a year to our work. There are many components to economic development but no matter how you slice it, economic development will not alone solve our cities financial problems, but it will help over the long run. On the site listed above you can wander around and see some of the things we have been doing and how we have been doing it. Look at the report at this link to see an our end of 2009 report. You will see a number of initiative proposed by the EDC all of which have been adopted by the council.

    http://www.ci.edmonds.wa.us/cedc/presentations/2009_CombinedAnnualReports_EconomicDevelopmentCommission-and-PlanningBoard.pdf

    Our second year report can be found at the following link

    http://www.ci.edmonds.wa.us/cedc/presentations/Combined2010AnnualReports_EconDevCommPlnBrd.pdf

    One of the major initiatives that had the support of 6 our of 7 council members was the need for Edmonds to develop a Strategic Plan. This is a citizen driven process to provide strategic direction for our city. You can read about the effort at the following link

    http://www.ci.edmonds.wa.us/rfp/110420_CoEStrategicPlanRFP.pdf

    When this planning process is completed with the maximum involvement of as many citizens and citizens groups as possible we should have a better pulse on what people want for the future of Edmonds and how they would like to pay for it.
    As a side note at last nights council meeting Council member Lora Petso has invited anyone interested in joining to commission to contact the city or her to be appointed as one of her representatives on the commission. This would be an ideal way for anyone to help with this effort and lend your voice and opinions to the EDC. The group of 17 come from very diverse backgrounds and has learned to listen and learn from each other. We have advanced some major initiatives all of which have been approve by council and are well along to producing results.

    • Here is the information provided by City of Edmonds Building Official Leonard Yarberry of the Development Services Department at last night’s council meeting:

      The department has 16 employees. The number of staff per 1,000 population is at a level “similiar to what it was in early 1990s,” he said. When the city was at the peak of the building boom in 2005 and 2006, they used “a lot of consultants” rather than hire additional staff, Yarberry said.

      He had a chart showing the number of city building permits from 1985-2010. I thought these were the number of permits issued, but the numbers are very large compared to what Joan and Ron are referencing above, so it must be the number of permits filed?

      This year, through April 2011, there were 305 permits, for projects valued at $8.7 million.

      At the same time last year, through April 2010, there were 358 permits valued at $26.8 million. There were more permits last year but the projects were valued higher last year too. This goes back to what I indicated earlier, about more do-it-yourself projects, additions, etc. rather than expensive homes being built.

      I can submit unanswered questions to the Mayor, or maybe he will answer them directly here and save us some time?

  15. Do we really need a Strategic Plan for Edmonds? Another plan that is added to the many others created in recent years? I have several for our work on Hwy 99, plans for 5 Corners and Westgate are under way, plans for the Port, master plan for the old Safeway property, plans for parks, the Arts Corridor, transportation, downtown plans, etc. We have planned ourselves into a corner that represents the inability to execute many of the good visions and recommendations. I’m concerned that we may be tripping over each other’s plans and competing for scarce resources available in Edmonds. Leadership should identify what now is important and move on that plan. Otherwise I think it best to declare a holiday from any new strategic plans.

  16. Teresa,

    Thanks so much for taking the time to do that. The chart I linked to was all Land Use Permit Applications, which require completion in 120 days, including the following:

    Design Review, Accessory Dwelling Unit, Conditional Use Permit, Lot Line Adjustment, Short Plat, Plat, PRD, Rezone, Shoreline Permit, Variance, Misc Staff Decisions

    By law, this report must be posted on line. I looked for a list of all building permit types issued, but couldn’t find anything. The total permits would include all permits issued by the COE for remodels, home office, new store occupancy, and so forth.

    One could surmise that land use projects, which allow a 120 day time period for completion, and involve obtaining approval for significantly larger, and trickier, projects, would also take significantly more staff time to complete.

    Mayor Cooper will forward the 2010 report to me as soon as he obtains it, and I will post that link in this conversation.

  17. Don,

    Thanks for having the courage to speak at City Council meeting. I know from experience how lonely it feels up at that podium, especially when I am a lone speaker bringing up a contentious issue. Keep in mind that there are many other citizens who wouldn’t or couldn’t (or couldn’t drag themselves out that evening) speak at council meeting who agree with you.

    Darrol,

    Your volunteer work on the Economic Development Commission is greatly appreciated. I agree with the committee that a strategic plan is needed to map our future. I also greatly appreciate the efforts made by the volunteers on the committee to advise council regarding the need, and to educate citizens so that when a consultant(s) is hired as many citizens as possible will become involved.

    Jim,

    My understanding of the strategic plan is that it would bring all of the various plans together, prioritizing and deciding how to move forward. If done well, it would serve to prevent our “tripping over each other’s plans and competing for scarce resources available in Edmonds.” The plan would provide an outline of how the citizens of Edmonds want to use those scarce resources.

  18. Perhaps Joan will get the permit info, but here is the data on new construction.

    Value Tax Rate Property Taxes

    2007 $87,213,448 $1.83 $159,600

    2008 $100,431,960 $1.63 $163,704

    2009 $84,951,003 $1.82 $154,611

    2010 $18,563,567 $1.98 $ 36,757

  19. Sorry for the layout of the data; I didn’t configure it that way, it’s what happened after I hit Submit.

  20. I’m curious to see if I can include a table in a message. Here’s an attempt to reformat Ron’s data. If you see a bunch of , ignore this message.

    Year
    Value
    Tax Rate
    Property Taxes

    2007
    $87,213,448
    $1.83
    $159,600

    2008
    $100,431,960
    $1.63
    $163,704

    2009
    $84,951,003
    $1.82
    $154,611

    2010
    $18,563,567
    $1.98
    $36,757

  21. One more attempt to show this data in a table.

    Year
    Value
    Tax Rate
    Property Taxes

    2007
    $87,213,448
    $1.83
    $159,600

    2008
    $100,431,960
    $1.63
    $163,704

    2009
    $84,951,003
    $1.82
    $154,611

    2010
    $18,563,567
    $1.98
    $36,757

  22. Citizens need to come to council meetings and express their opinions. In is useless to do that after the fact!

  23. Ron, I’m grateful that people like you take the time to express your opinions at Council meetings. I hope you never get tired and give up.

    But I think you are being a little harsh to call other venues “useless”. I’m not sure you even believe that. Letters get read. Councilmembers read their email and generally respond to it. Messages here influence not only the council but the people who vote for them.

    I’ll bet most (if not all) of the council will read most of the messages here about finances and the levy.

  24. Joe:

    You are, of course, correct. I intended to say that it is useless to express opposition after council has acted. Views need to be made known before any action is taken.

  25. Ron B.

    Thank you for your comments. All that I can say is that you have your priorities in the right order. I hope that the situation improves for your dad.

  26. Reaching back a few comments, regarding the Strategic Plan (or Vision, if you prefer), this is absolutely vital for the future of Edmonds.

    At every discussion regarding what we should do in this neighborhood, or at that corner, or even on a particular property, we all end up spiraling each other in a cycle of criticism that shows our lack of a shared (or at least approved) future vision by which we should guide our decisions. We do not have a common framework in which to place our decisions and discussions. Without an overall strategy to coordinate our efforts and to guide our decisions, we will continue to nit-pick based on methods and personalities, vice focusing on what’s really important: outcomes.

    Edmonds has several excellent case studies collecting dust on the shelves from the past several years, and that is tragic. If we believed what those studies told us, and acted on them, we might be in a better place financially, and business-wise.

    Now that we have embarked on a new mission to define our goals, we should hold our electeds FIRMLY to abiding by whatever is finally adopted. Otherwise, we will endure years more of naysayer gridlock, and disparate efforts that cannot achieve the effects that a synergistic planning effort can bring.

  27. Ron – nope. That’s not the vision I was referring to. I was referring to the idea that we should spend the nominal funds required to pursue a Strategic Plan for Edmonds. That way, we have a framework for making decisions. Whether or not we should fund a Strategic Plan effort was one of the little issues thrown up as a way to save money. Clearly, you see that the amount spent on a Strategic Plan study would be negligible compared to the elephant-in-the-room.

    No reference whatsoever to the public employee debate was intended to be included in my statement. I’d be happy to discuss my personal views with you on that subject, though. But before we do, I’d separate the national health care crisis debate from the discussion, as that’s not something the City can fix.

    My belief on healthcare is that we, as members of a community, should strive to find ways to get affordable healthcare to all, vice trying to drag everyone down to the bottom. If we drag everyone down to meet “average”, I can guarantee that the average will never improve. Instead of directing anger at those who have healthcare plans that work, we should fix it for those who don’t have healthcare.

  28. @Ron – why the violent agreement? I agree that personnel costs are the largest – hope you found that in my previous post. However, to then conclude that nothing else should be funded, is not a correct conclusion.

    Classic goose vs. golden egg dilemma. If you want the golden egg, you must feed the goose. Or, using the words of Stephen Covey, it’s about “Production” vs. “Production Capacity”, or about the “important vs. the urgent”. We can continue to lean our operations by not funding anything but necessities, but this will come back to bite us. It always does. See our water utility for an example of such mismanagement in the past.

    We have no consolidation in our efforts. No alignment. No reference standard by which to judge our efforts. Well, that’s not entirely true. We have the Comprehensive Plan, but it is just plain not understood or referenced often enough. This lack of a decision framework, and lack of a common vision of the future, leads to a lack of focus – and we get what we have now. A great deal of energy being expended, but without direction. All friction. All scrambling for position on the lifeboat instead of looking for land.

    I’m not sure what your math analogy was referring to, but I will attempt to extend it. The right investments do not produce a 1-for-1 return, they produce an exponential return. I believe that having the Strategic Plan discussion is one of those investments.

    So, back to the lifeboat analogy, just because I want to post a binoculars watch to look for land, doesn’t mean that I don’t understand that we still need people assigned to bailing the boat so that we don’t sink. I just don’t want to wait for the resolution of the argument about who has to bail next to stop me from posting the binoculars watch. We know it’s important, get it done, and then get back to business on the more pressing and urgent issues.

  29. Todd, I’m all for having a strategic plan and I think Ron is wrong to dismiss the idea. I’ll use a different lifeboat analogy. Before you can ask people to start rowing, you need to figure out what direction to go. Otherwise you may be rowing away from the land you seek rather than toward it. Without a strategy for fully funding street maintenance, I fear that we’re going to face a much greater funding shortfall in the future.

    But in your bailing analogy, if you’re going to ask me to bail, then I want you to fix the hole in the boat before you endlessly scan the horizon. Finding land far away isn’t going to help if people get too tired to keep up the bailing and the boat sinks before we get there. I think our boat may have holes in it and I know people are tired of bailing. That’s what I hear Ron saying.

    I don’t know if we can or should try to save money by eliminating staff or reducing their benefits. But I do want to see the mayor address this question honestly and openly. I also want to hear him say why adding a crime prevention officer is more important than fully funding street maintenance. I want to know what are the long term consequences of postponing some of the street maintenance.

    I want Edmonds to remain a great place to live and I’m willing to pay more in taxes to see that happen. I want to see staff pay and benefits at a level that keeps talent here. I want to have well-maintained parks. But I want enough transparency to know that the taxes I’m already paying are being used wisely. I just don’t see that yet. If the mayor and his staff can’t be bothered with providing transparency and a compelling long term strategy before this important levy, how are we ever going to pressure them to do so?

  30. As I reread my message (#39), I realized that the metaphor in the second paragraph really failed to capture what I was trying to say. So allow me to try again.

    We’re all in a lifeboat together and despite our efforts to keep bailing, the water keeps rising. Captain Cooper tells us he’s got a plan – he’s going to find bigger buckets. Seaman Wambolt says “Our buckets are big enough, but I think there’s a hole in the boat. ” Captain Cooper says “Keeping this boat seaworthy is my job. Every old boat has some leaks. Your job is to keep bailing.” We all realize the Captain is right and we keep bailing while we wait for the bigger buckets. Seaman Wambolt says “I’ve repaired boats before and I think it can be fixed. ” The Captain is silent, and there’s no proof there’s a hole or that it can be fixed, so we all keep bailing. Finally, out of frustration Seaman Wambolt says “The only way to get the Captain to look for a hole in the boat is to reject the bigger buckets. If he doesn’t start looking for a hole by November, we’ll elect a new Captain who will either find the hole and fix it or convince us there isn’t one. If there isn’t one, or if we fix it and we still can’t bail fast enough, I’ll grab a bigger bucket with everybody else.” The Captain remains silent. And that’s where we are today – a standoff in a sinking boat.

    There are some who say that the state audit is proof enough that there’s no hole. The problem I have with that is that the State Auditor is only trying to prove that City money is being spent legally. I’m certainly convinced that it is. But what I want to know is whether the money is spent wisely. Without more transparency, I can’t answer that question so I’ll vote against the levy.

  31. Joan:

    Your last paragraph is a perfect summation of the issue and, in my opinion, comes to the right conclusion.

    Ron

  32. I just sent the following email to the mayor and council members.

    “It was said by Council Member Fraley-Monillas at this week’s meeting that the current labor contract negotiations could yield some pleasant news. That aside, with compensation in 2012 anticipated to account for 52% of total expenses, it seems to me that it would be wise to leave the finalization of the scope of any levy until after the labor negotiations are completed.”

  33. @ Joe Morgan

    You are my hero! Please run for council. I will be the first to write you a check and doorbell for you.

  34. Thank you, Priya – that was a really nice thing to say.

    It’s not even remotely possible I would run for council. I do hope we get more candidates. The filing deadline is only a month away. As far as I know only two candidates have declared for the 4 open positions.

  35. I hope at least one of the candidates will come up with a clear vision of just how much transparency is needed. There is a slippery slope here that could eventually lead to craziness like “Lynnwood gets by with only 4 pencils per staff member per month. Why does Edmonds have to buy 5 per month?” or “Where are the long form birth certificates for all the staff members?”

    I know we don’t have enough transparency now, but how much is enough? Councilmember Buckshnis, you would appear to be the best qualified to answer this.

    (I now know that 5 candidates have declared, not 2 as I stated above. That still means 3 uncontested seats)

  36. Joe:
    Here’s this morning’s info from the PDC website:

    COOPER J MIKE CITY OF EDMONDS MAYOR U N
    ANDERSON PAUL A CITY OF EDMONDS CITY COUNCIL MEMBER U N
    WILSON DONALD J CITY OF EDMONDS CITY COUNCIL MEMBER U N
    YAMAMOTO FRANK CITY OF EDMONDS CITY COUNCIL MEMBER U N
    BUCKSHNIS DIANE M CITY OF EDMONDS CITY COUNCIL MEMBER 04
    PETSO LORA L CITY OF EDMONDS CITY COUNCIL MEMBER 07

    4 of the 7 council positions are up for election this year.

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