Reminder of Coffee with Harry Monday: Let’s talk levy

Harry Gatjens

He’s back! Join My Edmonds News’ own Citizen Harry Gatjens for another “Coffee with Harry” meeting Monday afternoon, July 18, at 3 p.m., at Chanterelle restaurant. The topic for discussion? “What do you think about a proposed property tax levy and how it should be structured?”

The Edmonds City Council and the mayor have discussed the idea of putting a levy on the ballot for the past several years. The City’s economic forecast shows a deficit starting in 2012, with the deficit steadily growing until the City uses up its reserves by 2015.

During the meeting, those attending will go over the projections and what they mean, and will also discuss the various proposals be floated for a property tax increase. “Current council members plus candidates for council and the mayor are all invited to hear what the citizens think and to inform us on their own thoughts on the issue,” Gatjens said.

The format will be the same as previous coffees. Chanterelle will provide regular coffee for free; food and fancy coffee is on your own dime. Everyone is free to agree or disagree with others at coffee, but you need to be respectful and let each other make their own points.

  1. For those interested in attending this, I’d recommend you read the Edmonds Citizen Survey on the 2011 Levy if you haven’t already done so. It’s one of the better surveys I’ve seen and will provide some good information on what voters at large think.

    A levy will pass or fail based on the collective will of the voters, not your (or my) opinion.

  2. Joe,

    Thanks for posting the link to the survey. Most striking is that 70% of those surveyed strongly agreed that: “The City of Edmonds should wait until after they complete their Strategic Plan later this year before proposing a new tax”.

    Thanks to Harry for doing this. I plan to be there.

  3. Hopefully myedmonds will report the highlights of Citizen Harry’s coffee and will include a current update on the progress (or not) of the questionable fiber optics venture.

  4. Ray, As chair of the Citizens Technology Advisory Committee, CTAC, I can happily report the progress us going better than the plan approved by Council. I will put together some details and pass them along in the next couple of days. Bottom line is that the fiber project is helping the budet by saving costs and generating revenue in excess of expenses.

  5. Ray, I recall you previously asked about the fiber project and I provided you with a complete history of the project along with the costs/revenue/and savings from the project. If you did not get that information I will be happy to send it along. The current quarterly report that was prepared for council can be seen at the following link.

    Ray, you and I exchanged ideas on MEN and also privately about the nature of special interest groups in town. I am a member of a special interest group that is always trying to find ways for the City to save costs or generate revenue. The CTAC team has been working on the fiber project for more than 5 years and has found ways to save costs and produce revenues for the City with our fiber assets.

    The current annual savings and revenues are around $98k and the annual costs are around $27k so we are generating a contribution to the general fund of about $71k annually. There were costs to get the network up and running and those costs are being retired with the annual contribution. ALL COSTS ASSOCIATED WITH FIBER WILL BE FULLY PAID OFF IN EARLY 2015. What that means is this project will pay back ALL PRIOR COSTS with savings and revenue. So the fiber project is making a contribution to the GF and not draining the GF in any way.

    You will also see in the link above that the legal appeal was won by Edmonds and our right to sell excess capacity has been validated. What are not shown in the data on the link are added revenues that are anticipated. We have a contract with another governmental agency that is pending approval which will add to the revenue in excess of the cost to provide the service. Our Ccouncil and the other entity will be approving that contract shortly. That will effectively raise the contribution to the GF. Additionally we are working with several Edmonds entities to provide them with fiber services. This will also add to the contribution to the GF. We will have more to say about the added revenue on the next quarterly report to Council.

    So in your previous post you said: “Hopefully myedmonds will report the highlights of Citizen Harry’s coffee and will include a current update on the progress (or not) of the questionable fiber optics venture.” In the past Harry has always reported on the discussion that occurred. I plan to attend and will have detailed information about “the questionable fiber optics venture”. But, I would not want to take much time away from the important discussion of levies with the full details on fiber so I wanted to give the highlights of that information here and now.

    Ray let me know if you have other questions either on MEN or on my personal email which you have.

  6. Darrol,

    Thank you very much!

    Its great news to see an improving trend. Lets hope we will be even by 2015. I’m a bit skeptical of some of the “estimated” saving. And even with the current improvement its nowhere near much of the previous pie in the sky estimates. Break even has always been about 4 years away.

    Yet, it is beginning to look like something that now has a chance to succeed, or at least to eventually break even. So when it goes public I’ll probably pass up the opportunity.

    Again thank you.

  7. Wish I could have been there, Harry, and I look forward to hearing what came of your discussion.

    Happy to hear the legal obstacles to making money on the fiber project are finally out of the way – while this won’t be the budget salvation of the City, it will be a magnet for drawing business that need bandwidth to Edmonds, hopefully filling some of those vacant storefronts.

    As for the survey results, they must be interpreted appropriately, or else we end up right back where we started: with underfunded infrastructure. NOBODY is going volunteer themselves for a tax hike, and any “speed bump” on the way to the levy is automatically going to be accepted as a good idea. Waiting for a Strategic Plan makes no sense, as such plans do not add to the budget debate in any meaningful way for years after completion.

    You’ll hear “wait for the XYZ Report before we decide” over and over again in Edmonds politics. It’s a sign of new leaders who want to do the right thing, but aren’t quite ready to make decisions for themselves. Or, experienced leaders who are using delaying tactics to attempt to deflate an effort. Rarely is the report directly relevant to the decision at hand. Make the proposal, and make it as clear as you can. Either we need the levy, or we do not. Another batch of consultants are not going to make that decision for us.

  8. Todd said: Waiting for a Strategic Plan makes no sense

    Well, I have good news for you, Todd. About 3% of the voters agree with you. That’s a small enough number that you could call them all together for a meeting to decide what to do next.

    From the April 2011 Levy Survey of Voters:

    The City of Edmonds should wait until after they complete their Strategic Plan
    later this year before proposing a new tax —
    Very Important: 70%
    Somewhat Important: 18%
    Not Very Important: 7%
    Not Important At All: 3%
    Don’t Know: 2%

    Todd said: Either we need the levy, or we do not.

    I think most everybody agrees we need some kind of levy. I don’t think voters trust the city financial numbers. If they don’t trust the numbers, they’re not going to be convinced that the amount is right or that it’s being used for the right things.

    You seem to see the problem as how do we get a levy on the ballot. I see the problem as how do we get a levy to pass.

  9. Joe – I didn’t say the poll numbers agreed with me, I laid out a case of my beliefs. I don’t think there will EVER be a poll where people are given a “now or later” levy option where they choose “now” over “later”, so I’d not use that as evidence that the “Strategic Plan” is what people are really waiting for. My point is, it is wrong to wait for a study that has no bearing on the levy question. We must lead from the front.

    Concur with your determination to get the right levy to pass, vice getting it on the ballot. That’s exactly my point as well. We need our “leaders” to stop puffing up about mistrust and waiting for the next great report, and have them commit, together, to a comprehensive levy package. Preferably with clear words of support, and written assurances that, if conditions change, they won’t necessarily keep the higher tax rates.

    Our problem isn’t what was found in the survey – that was the symptom. The ailment is that our Council is at odds with itself – unable or unwilling to come to resolution on the levy issue in over two YEARS of “just one more report or milestone” waiting. They’re either playing politics with the budget/finances issue to make themselves look like the sole great defender of the people (unwilling), or they simply don’t know how to work with the other Council members satisfactorily to find the middle ground (unable).

    There is no third option. Time to roll up the sleeves, look each other in the eye, agree on what the goals are, and get busy. Further excuses only serve to worsen the symptoms.

  10. Any levy on the ballot in November that puts money into the general fund will fail. First, you’d have to tell the voters that you don’t care what they think about getting a strategic plan done first. That’s unlikely to win support.

    Second, voters would have no clear picture of how that money is going to be used because we could have up to four new members of the council that will decide how to spend that money. Up to 4 new people with no voting record.

    As a taxpayer, I see my role as that of an investor. Before I write a check, I want to be assured that there’s a good plan and the will to carry it out. We currently have neither.

    I agree that council has been asleep at the wheel. Initiative 747 passed 10 years ago. (That the initiative that only allows a 1% property tax increase each year without the voter’s approval.) It should have been obvious to anyone back then that with inflation at 3-4% we were going to need to pass a levy at some point. Planning for it should have started way back then.

    Sorry for being overly snarky in my earlier post. I do always enjoy reading your well-articulated thoughts, even when I disagree with them.

  11. Joe – I agree that pushing any levy nowadays will be a Sisyphean task. But… as you note with the numbers being stacked against us, we HAVE to do it anyhow. Failure is not an option, and there are few places left to cut.

    The Council doesn’t chart the course of the City, as our Congress doesn’t chart the course of the Country. Our Comprehensive Plan, and other City plan documents, are what determines our course. A “Strategic Plan” will provide a framework which these other documents must support, but has no bearing on the operational level of funding that we’re talking about with a levy.

    Well, unless we get some sort of malarkey like another crazed bid to purchase waterfront property, perhaps…. We can never guard against such silliness completely.

  12. Interesting that you picked the metaphor of Sisyphus. He has doomed to try and fail repeatedly through eternity. Let’s hope we have a better chance than he did.

    There are real costs to trying a levy that fails. Beyond the modest monetary cost, you’ll wear out your champions and lose some for the next effort. The failure will be used as a political tool to help defeat the next one. (The failed TBD levy will be used in this way.)

    Through the survey, I think voters gave a pretty clear idea of what must be done to succeed. 52% see the need for a general fund levy. I think real progress is being made on the transparency of finances.

    Nobody (including you) has a credible plan for getting a general fund levy passed. I think a strategic plan would help the city council speak with one voice. 53% of voters think that’s important.

  13. Todd,

    You refer to the strategic planning process as “a study” and the firm hired to guide the process as “another batch of consultants.” This is a citizen driven process, guided by the consultants. As much input from citizens, including our youth, will be gathered as possible to set a road map for the future of Edmonds. The comprehensive plan, with all of its’ elements, will provide the framework, not the other way around.

    Treating the strategic planning process as just another study, does a disservice to what the process is about. Rather than the consultants telling our council and Mayor what should be done, through the strategic planning process, the citizens of Edmonds will drive the future of Edmonds.

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