More levy discussion for Council Tuesday; Wilson sole ‘no’ vote on labor contracts

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As planned, the Edmonds City Council spent three hours in a self-described workshop Tuesday night — tossing around ideas for a possible levy to place on the November ballot. And in predictable form, the council did not make a decision, instead preferring to wait until the city’s second-quarter financial numbers are released.

After councilmembers spent a couple of hours of broad discussion on the issue, Edmonds Mayor Mike Cooper said that he and his staff were feeling like  “a squirrel in a cage” as the council had gone through a similar review of levy options a couple of months ago and also did not make a decision. At Cooper’s suggestion, Council President Strom Peterson took a straw poll of councilmembers to see whether a majority favored putting some type of levy on the ballot, even if the content and amount was not yet defined. After seeing a majority of hands, Cooper said that he and city staff would develop several levy options based on the workshop discussion. The deadline for putting a levy on the November ballot is Aug. 16.

“Clearly, all of you have been throwing out different numbers so we will take our best stab at what we heard,” Cooper said.

Among the ideas mentioned:

– A levy specifically devoted to street overlays, which are badly needed thanks to years of deferred maintenance. Some favor the actual amount it would take to put street overlays on a recommended cycle of repair — $1.5 million annually to ensure overlays every 15-18 years for arterials and 30-35 years for residential streets. Others, such as Councilmember Lara Petso, recommended a lower amount — $700,000 — in the belief that a more modest levy amount might gain passage.

– A $800,000-$900,000 combination levy for parks and building maintenance, favored by Councilmember Diane Buckshnis. Buckshnis also suggested offering a separate levy for streets and possibly another for general fund purposes, depending on the results of the second-quarter financial numbers. Other councilmembers also expressed support for this approach of offering a so-called smorgasboard of separate levies instead of one larger levy package, so that voters could pick and choose.

— In contrast, Councilmember DJ Wilson encouraged the council to “think big” and look at five areas of city government that are facing what he called “dramatic deficits” — parks, buildings, streets, the city’s ongoing financial deficit and an inadequate number of city staff for critical tasks. ” I know this is tricky time financially,” Wilson said, “but I really encourage us…to really talk about these issues.”

Wilson also took a strong stance regarding labor contracts during the short business portion of the meeting, when the council discussed the approval of labor agreements between the City and two unions: the Public, Professional and Office-Clerical Employees and Drivers Local Union No. 763 and the Service Employees international Local 925. Wilson was the sole vote against approving the agreements, stating that he couldn’t support a four-year labor contract with cost-of-living increases, additional paid holidays and the return of any savings in health care plans to employees, when other local and state governments have asked their employees to make sacrifices and when families in Edmonds are struggling to make ends meet.

Noting that his highest priority has been to get a levy on the November ballot to ensure the city has adequate funding for important services, Wilson said he “can’t sell a levy if I have to defend those things that are over and above what we already have in our contract.”

34 COMMENTS

  1. Interesting debate on how to structure a proposed levy. If our goal is to fund all necessary requirements, or, failing that, to fund as many as possible, is it more likely that the “smorgasbord” of small targeted levy options will lead to success, or a combined “here’s what we need all together” single levy?

    Does anyone know of any history or analysis that would favo one approach over the other? I’m not beholden to either approach, I’m beholden to results, so whatever gets our needs funded is the right answer.

    As for the labor contract, I support our City employees getting a fair shake – we shouldn’t hammer them simply to use that as evidence that we seriously addressed the budget before asking for a levy. But, by the same logic, we should give our taxpayers a fair shake. Business is still trying to recover, and people simply aren’t making the additional money required to support traditional COLA plans. I concur with Mr. Wilson that we should press for a labor contract more in line with the current economic reality.

  2. Todd, a problem with your analysis is that there is no consensus on what are the necessary requirements and what things are just nice to have.

    I happen to think that fully funding overlays is a necessary requirement because we are going to have to spend this money eventually and if we postpone it until the subsurface pavement breaks down, it just gets more expensive. But some people (Cooper & Petso at least) think that only 50% funding is necessary.

    Once you get beyond street maintenance, there is a wide diversity of opinion (both citizens and elected officials) on what’s necessary.

    The outcome of the labor negotiations is indeed unfortunate. It will be easily argued that the city gave too much, and that a significant portion of the levy would pay for that. The elected officials doing the negotiation (Fraley-Monillas and Cooper) are both strongly supported by the union they negotiated with. That makes an easy target for the levy naysayers.

  3. I’ll take this discussion a step further and lay out exactly what I would do if I were on the council right now. I would try to rally support behind a single levy option of funding 50% of the need for street overlays. That would fix the problems with the worst of our streets and prevent catastrophic failures. I wouldn’t put anything else on the ballot because I don’t think anything else has a prayer of succeeding. Failure of any ballot option would undermine the ability to get future funding for whatever that option was trying to fund.

    I would say let’s let the new council (which will have at least one new face regardless of the election outcome) figure out where to go from there in January without the pressure of election politics. In the meantime, I’d spend time and money getting good citizen-friendly financial information out there to restore trust and confidence in city government. Restoring trust and confidence is the most urgent problem facing our city. Without it, we’re at the start of a long decline.

  4. I have said this before, No more levy’s, we the people of Edmonds voted a Levy Lid, because the City can’t manage there (our) money and they want to use fear factors thinking that might work, It looks like we have to manage them? specify exactly how much and what item you want us to vote on, Say no to a general levy as there will be NO direction as to where the funds will be spent, AGAIN if we agree to a new levy I would also like something that states our current Levy Lid will not be compromised. By the way how much does it cost to get all these levy’s on a ballot? and what fund is that paid from?

    ED

  5. I attended the meeting last night, and our interim finance director said that the contracts include a 2% pay increase (combined step, longevity, etc) in salaries per year, and the contract is for four years (January 2011 through December 2014). I agree with Todd, and with DJ Wilson, that Council “should press for a labor contract more in line with the current economic reality”. Especially since this contract is for four years. However, the contracts have already been approved by Council.

    I also agree with Joe Morgan, and Lora Petso, that the most Council should present to the voters in the form of a levy is half of the funding for street overlays. I continue to think that it is unlikely that any levy will pass in our current economic situation.

  6. Kudos to Joan for acknowledging her opponent’s statement and vote last night. I’m always impressed when politics and personalities take a back seat to policy.

    The way Joan and DJ are conducting their campaigns so far is a model for all to follow.

  7. Does anyone know about the automated telephone poll last night that asked about preferences for the DJ/Joan race and the Mayors race?

  8. this reponse is to individual who quoted the facts about the union contract. please get your facts straight before you put out information. if you read the union contract specificaly the teamsters, you would see that in fact for 2011 0% cola ,2012 1.5% ,2013 2% and 2014 is 2% as well. So its not 2% percent across the board. keep in mind those increases are the max not the min. its funny how soon our elected officials forget about the fact that SOME not all of the unions took furlough days in 09 to help protect jobs and so that citizens of this great city did not half to see services cut, parks turn into jungles and roads fall apart. as an employee of this city im tired of bearing all of the burdon when it comes to cutting because our elected officials want to play games at council meetings and not make any decisions. when compared to other city in this are we have far less employess yet we get the same if not more work done but that seems to go under the radar. im thankful and proud to work for the City of Edmonds and dont want it to continue to fall apart. im hopeful to get someone who knows how to Lead and make the sound decisions the city needs during the coming elections! robert

  9. When I commented at last night’s meeting I said that I didn’t believe that the city council could have negotiated a much better deal. It seems like our state’s labor leaders develop the elements of agreements that they’ll accept. The compensation of government workers will not be brought into the “real world” until we have a governor who takes us in that direction.

    I do regret that our city council did nothing in regard to seeking employee concessions. Unions pride themselves in negotiating deals that are equal to or superior to the contracts negotiated by unions in other jurisdictions. That indicates that they are into the concept of benchmarking. Council members should have pressed to benchmark the limited concessions given by our workers to what has been given in other jurisdictions, and sought agreement from our unions to comply with the results of that benchmarking.

  10. Robert,

    I was referring to the interim finance director’s statement at the meeting that the combined increases (pay, step, and longevity) equaled 2 % salary increase per year for the duration of the contract, which is four years. I did not take that information directly from the contracts, I took it from the interim finance director’s statement. If I recall correctly, Mr. Plunkett said he thought that (2%) percent increase was higher than he had understood it to be. The full text of the conversation will be in the minutes of the meeting, and it can also be viewed on Channel 21. Perhaps I misunderstood what was being conveyed.

    Thanks for adding more information to the conversation to clarify and thanks for your hard work for the city.

  11. I recommend relying on the contracts as opposed to anything said at the council meeting about the deals with the unions.

  12. could someone tell me the cost to get a levy on the ballot, and if there are 4-5 seperate items instead of one generl levy will it cost 4-5 times more?

    Ed Goettel

  13. Ed G, the cost of a levy election depends heavily on whether we run it as a special election, or in conjunction with an existing ballot. Obviously, the existing ballot is much cheaper, and running multiple measures on the same ballot does cost more, but very small differences, as I recall from the original Levy Committee papers from back in 2009.

    Also, Ed G, your understanding of a levy lid would benefit from a clearer understanding of the nature of inflation, vs. the City’s tax rate authority. The game is rigged such that the City must either reduce services, or go to the voters for a levy lid lift. We should pare back where it makes sense first, but a levy is inevitable given the structure of our tax system. It is not necessitated by profligate govrnment spending. This is not the Federal government.

  14. Teresa The polling questions went something like this.
    If you were to vote today who would you perfer, Mike Cooper, David Earling, or Roger Hertage? (sorry about the spelling). Second question was If you were to vote today who would you perfer. Joan Bloom or DJ Wilson.

    Then there were a few questions to group people. Do you perfer the Republican Party, Democratic Party or Independent Party? Then there was a age grouping question using ranges of ages.

    For each question it was a touch 1, 2 or 3 type response for the question. Hope that helps. The is not unlike a poll DJ did a few months back so he may be the one behind the poll. Ask DJ if he did the poll and ask him for the results.

  15. Ron B. Could you help us understand how you came up with the 5% COLA number. I have looked at both contracts and cannot see or figure out how you arrived at the 5%?

  16. Ed on #20 Todds answere on 21 is basically right. You can go to the link below and find out information about elections and the cost allocations process. A special election if Edmonds is the one on the ballot is more expensive that a General Election where the costs are shared by other entities. You can search the City Council Minutes and I recall that Sandy Chase has provided an estimate if we were the only thing on the ballot. So we could have 1,2,or 3 levies and it would cost the same.

    http://www.co.snohomish.wa.us/documents/Departments/Auditor/Elections/2011ElectionGuide.pdf

  17. DJ made some good points about the challenges we face as a city and MEN reported his comments above “… Councilmember DJ Wilson encouraged the council to “think big” and look at five areas of city government that are facing what he called “dramatic deficits” — parks, buildings, streets, the city’s ongoing financial deficit and an inadequate number of city staff for critical tasks. ” I know this is tricky time financially,” Wilson said, “but I really encourage us…to really talk about these issues.”
    These are interesting times and DJ’s point about “thinking big” is an important concept. DJ was instrumental in setting into motion the Economic Development Commission. These 17 people along with staff have been working for more than 2 year on a number of issues and the corner stone of the work was approved by council on June 21. Council voted 6 to 0 to approve the hiring of the Beckwith Consulting firm to help us create the Strategic Plan.
    You can see the Beckwith proposal on the link below.

    http://agenda.ci.edmonds.wa.us/docs/2011/CCOUNCIL/20110621_542/4007_BECKWITH%20-%20Edmonds%20Strategic%20Plan.pdf

    You can see the chart of activities in summary on the following link.
    http://agenda.ci.edmonds.wa.us/docs/2011/CCOUNCIL/20110621_542/4007_edmonds-strategicplan-ganttchart-roles.pdf

    I would urge you to go the city web site and look at the council packet for this item to see for yourself how the process will work. The staff summary is in the council packet for the June 21 meeting.

    The development of the SP will engage the entire town one way or another over the next 10 months and right out of the starting blocks will be an interaction session with the Council. So DJ will get his wish for the council to “think big” right from the get go.

  18. Todd and Darrol
    Thank you for clarifing and giving me a link to read, your input is insightful and spot on most of the time.

    Thanks
    Ed G

  19. I’d like to ask everyine to read #14 – robert slenker. Those are the actual words from a city emploee that apears to be willing to do wonderful things with far less resources than many other cities. He should be praised for his work and accomplishments! Yet, everyone left him in the dust to bicker.

    The thing that discourages me more than anything is that not one person on this blog nor in any other publication, I can find, appers to be willing to start from common ground. It all appears to be, one must believe this way or that way. When in reality things aren’t black and white.

    If one were to view how this city has been managed for (pick a time period) 50 years. There are decisions, policies and officials that have worked. There are probably an equal amount that haven’t worked. Let’s focus on what hasn’t worked and present creative ideas to address those.

    There seems to be a lot of dialog and cycles being spent regarding the levy. Has any one done a root cause analysis as to why this is now a priority? Are we sure that if a levy were to be passed we have solved to the root cause?

    I’m not trying to be divisive nor judgemental.

  20. Ed P – you’re spot on with your analysis. Though, I think the root cause is pretty well known. The statewide initiatives that cap the growth rate of property taxes limits the rate at which tax income to the City can grow without asking for a levy. The expenses, however, continue to grow based on several factors, such as costs of goods and services, as well as labor costs.
    With property values not increasing, our tax base will not keep up with the growth of expenses – material or labor. The game is rigged, and in my mind, it was written that way by the framers of the Initiative on purpose, to force the local governments to explain to the citizens why they need to increase the tax rates.
    One of the challenges here, is that the electorate isn’t really aware of what’s “under the hood” as far as the tax system goes. They simply assume that the government is asking them to raise their tax rates in order to fund some additional programs, or to give gold-plated benefits packages to their friends. This is difficult to remedy. People are busy, and tend to lean towards amusement and entertainment over reading lengthy discussions about tax policies (imagine the nerve!), so it’s hard to disabuse them of this preconception.
    Add to that the populist “no taxes are good!” bandwagon, and it’s even more challenging to a message past the barriers of understanding.
    Will a levy passing mean that we will have “solved the problem”? In my opinion, no. Not unless we consider having a government that provides services as a problem to be solved. Close the parks, lay off the employees, put the police in used Chevy Novas, and we’re good to go for the long haul.
    I must add a caveat to my discussion, as I can already feel the backlash comments coming – I do believe that there are more savings to be had, and that we should continue to pursue them in conjunction with our development of a levy package. And yes, I do mean looking at more labor concessions. However, I don’t harbor any illusion that even this significant measure will solve the mismatch between taxing authority limitations, and budget growth, over the long term, without periodic levy lid lift authorizations.
    The only long term way to “fix” this, is to magically cause property values to rise. Anyone want to bet the farm on that? Not I.

  21. Todd:

    Good comments, except I have to correct your last comment. Rising propertyvalues will do next to nothing to fix the revenue deficit. As values change the tax rate will change to cause property taxes to grow by 1%. The EMS levy is fixed at 50 cents per thousand dollars of assessed values, so those collections would grow.

  22. Thank you for the details both Todd and Ron.

    I’m trying to understand what you’re saying correctly. Are you saying the root cause of our streets being in their current condition and the need for immediate action is a result of our tax structure?

    If so, I’m confused. I know I’m an amateur and don’t want to rat hole the discussion. This is not what this post was about and I have your contact info Todd. I’ll reach out privately.

    Thanks again!

  23. Todd, I appreciate your comments, with Ron W’s correction. I’ve been wanting to say what you said for a long time. Ed, let me try explaining it differently, a bit oversimplified:

    Revenues have been staying about the same. Voters won’t give more. Expenses rise relentlessly due to inflation. We don’t want to cut services. What do we do?

    Our government decided to borrow from the future by steadily decreasing the amount spent on street overlays. Since there’s no obvious immediate impact, the temptation was just too hard to resist. Now that we’re spending nothing on overlays, there’s nothing left to borrow. It’s payback time.

  24. #29 Addition

    I should have gone on to say that the 1% limitation on growth in general property taxes highlights the need for new construction – because the law allows taxes from new construction in addition to the 1%. An immediate opportunity is the redevelopment of the post office property. The developer is ready to proceed; the Planning Board has made their recommendations, so it’s now up to city council to allow it to get done.

  25. Thanks to you all.

    I had a great conversation w/Todd this morning and the picture became much clearer. I now understand the true root cause for many of the issues that get bantered around.

    My only question is why don’t we hear much from our current or prospective leaders about how to address revenue. It seems to me if we are overly dependent upon a revenue stream with restrictions and drastically fluxuating production, we need to diversify, create new or consume less. I hate to bring up oil, but as we’ve become too dependent upon it, costs fluxuate wildly and long term availability is unknown, we’ve warmed to other sources of energy. (and less consumption)

    I know this is an over simplification and I don’t have 100% of the information, but it would be refreshing to hear our leaders talk about how they plan to address this or plan to turn public feedback into actionable items.

    Thanks again to you all for the insight.

  26. @DH 25 – Acutally the economic development commission came out of a recommendation from the yellow team in the 2009 levy work.

    Also, I want to echo what AFM stated, we met probably 8 to 10 times about these negotiations – just since March. If we would have bailed like Mr. Wilson did, we would have spent more money on labor disputes and attorney fees than imaginable. While the forecast has the dollar amount at its highest 2 percent, that does not mean that will be what is given. While labor negotiations is not my area of expertise and I listened intently to our negotiation team – three of us were most keen on ensuring that their was a health reopener (Petso, Plunkett and me) so that we can look at benefits. Benefits is by far outpacing salaries and you can ask the 2010 levy committee this question. Ms. Wellington recommended that a citizen committee be formed to look at benefits which is why Mr. Wilson began the slow process of discussing self-insurance.

    Regarding RW’s issue with the post office, yes, we are waiting for staff to bring the proposal forward and I am very familiar with the presentation. Not only do we need to increase new construction, we must also get the housing market back up on its feet and the only way to do that for Edmonds is to continue to promote what a great place it is to live, play and work.

  27. I thought the city had a freeze on hiring new employees now I see they have an opening for a waste water manager and that job pays close to $9000.00 a month plus benefits, now are they actually going to fill that job or are they just going through the motions like the city has done with the last couple of jobs posted. Why post a job if you are not going to fill it thats just a waste of everybodys time?

  28. I believe the freeze only applies to positions paid out of the general fund. I believe that water & sanitary sewer are kept separate and essentially pay for themselves through utility charges that go into the utility fund. Maybe one of the many financial wiz contributors could either confirm or clarify this.

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