From Edmonds Mayor Dave Earling: Short- and long-term city budget challenges

Dave Earling

The following article is an overview of the presentation that Edmonds Mayor Dave Earling gave at the Feb. 23 Edmonds Chamber of Commerce Luncheon. It also contains many of the same thoughts that Earling expressed in a presentation at the Tuesday, March 6, Edmonds City Council meeting on the city’s short- and long-term budget challenges.

As has been widely publicized, many cities in Washington are facing severe budget crises and have taken unprecedented measures to adjust to a “new normal.” This new normal has been described as potentially becoming a long-term structural imbalance between revenue and expenses for local government. Since the recession began in 2008, revenue has been declining or flatlined and not been able to keep pace with the growth in expenses for local government. This difference, or imbalance, causes an ever-widening gap between revenue and expenses that cannot be addressed with one-time use of reserves or with the addition of new revenue sources alone. Following are two of the major revenue sources for local government which make up the majority of revenue in a city’s General Fund, and their trends the last few years.

Property Taxes
According to the Snohomish County Assessor’s Office, the assessed value of all properties in the County has declined by 16 percent since 2009. Given that there is a two-year delay between actual sales transactions and when taxes are paid (sales in 2010 are assessed in 2011 and collected in 2012), it is almost certain assessed values will continue to decline in the short term.
One might expect that the decline in assessed value would result in lower taxes for homeowners. That has not been the case, though. During the same three year time period, 2009-2011, total property taxes paid in the County increased by 3.6 percent.

There are a number of ways that lower assessed values could still result in higher taxes paid overall by property owners. These include voter support for a bond levy for schools or cities, or voter approval of special purpose districts like a regional fire authority or metropolitan parks district.

The amount of property taxes a homeowner pays is made up of levies from a number of different taxing districts. Although total taxes paid by homeowners have increased between 2009-2011, taxes collected on behalf of cities has increased by just a minor amount. In 2009, Snohomish County cities received only 11.36 percent of the total property taxes collected, while that number increased slightly to 12.24 percent in 2011.

The majority of property taxes collected go toward state and local education (over 61 percent in 2011). In Edmonds, for instance, the City received $2.1223 (including the EMS levy) of the total $9.9503 property tax levy, or just 19.8 percent in 2011. The Edmonds School District, by contrast, received $4.1495 of the property tax levy, or 41.7 percent. The following graphic shows how property taxes are collected by taxing jurisdiction:

As you can see, property taxes collected by cities are a relatively small proportion of total taxes paid.
The rate of increase for property taxes collected by cities is limited to a 1% increase over prior year collections. For instance, if a city collects $10,000,000 in property taxes one year, it would be limited to collecting $100,000 more the following year for a total of $10,100,000, not including increases related to new construction. With costs for many cities rising 3-5% a year, and property taxes being the major revenue source for many cities, it is difficult for cities to keep up with the rising cost of providing services to residents. Other revenue sources are also not increasing as rapidly as costs are in many cities.

Sales Tax
The sales tax rate in Snohomish County ranges from 8.6- 9.5 percent. The state collects the majority of the tax, 6.5 percent, and counties and cities share the remainder.

Generally speaking, the amount cities receive from sales taxes is less than one penny (0.85 percent) of the total 9.5 cents (9.5 percent) collected on each $1 purchase. For example, on a sale of $10, sales tax collected by the State is 95 cents; of this amount, the State gives cities approximately 8 cents.

General economic activity has declined from a high in 2007, resulting in even less sales tax revenue for cities. In Lynnwood, for instance, taxable sales went from $2,239,842,621 in 2007 to $1,778,027,099 in 2010, a decrease of almost 21 percent within three years. In Edmonds, taxable sales declined from $607,095,013 to $498,941,554 within the same time period, a decline of nearly 18 percent.

Implications of Revenue Declines and Limitations on Increases for Cities
As previously discussed, the two largest revenue sources for cities have either declined the last several years or increases have not kept up with the cost of providing services. Property tax increases for cities are generally limited to 1 percent per year, with costs rising anywhere from 3-5 percent per year on average, and sales tax has declined by double-digit amounts during the last three years. This places a growing burden on City Councils to adapt to a new reality. Although cities have generally taken different approaches to dealing with their budget crisis’ the approaches generally fall into three broad categories; revenue increases, overall expenditure reductions or targeted service cutbacks or elimination.

Revenue Increases
Options cities have include enacting new taxes and fees on residents and businesses, or increasing existing revenue sources. Several cities have enacted or increased utility taxes that create revenue for the city’s General Fund. Some cities, including Edmonds, have been unsuccessful, while others such as the City of Shoreline have been successful, with getting voter approval of property tax levy increases. To help pay for transportation improvements, some cities have created Transportation Benefit Districts, e.g., Lake Forest Park, Edmonds, Olympia, Shoreline, Des Moines, Snohomish, Spokane, etc., and have enacted a $20 license tab fee.

Expenditure Reductions
Cities have also been creative in implementing overall expenditure reductions. Everett and Edmonds, for instance, delayed filling, or have yet to fill vacant positions. Everett also suspended contributions to the Police and Fire Pension Reserve. Everett and Edmonds, among many other cities, also delayed making contributions to equipment replacement funds, resulting in an aging fleet of vehicles, possibly increasing future maintenance costs at the same time. Lynnwood eliminated positions in its 2011-12 budget and Edmonds chose not to fund certain positions; both have implemented employee furloughs and held vacant positions open in order to reduce their budgets during the past few years.

Targeted Service Reductions or Elimination
The City of Everett delayed their sidewalk repair program after reassigning four employees to perform utility-related work for several years. Similar delays have occurred in other cities as money for transportation infrastructure has dried up, e.g., motor vehicle excise taxes, and there are dwindling resources in the General Fund for projects that do not already have their own dedicated revenue sources.

What the Future Holds
With property taxes limited to 1% annual increases for cities, and sales tax not yet recovering from dramatic declines in 2008-2010, the rate of growth in revenue is lagging behind the rate of growth in expenses for most cities. For instance, City of Edmonds expenses are projected to increase on average about 3.2% annually while revenue is expected to increase by approximately 1.4 percent annually between 2012 and 2016. Below is an illustration of what this means for the City of Edmonds.

The purple line represents ending fund balance (revenue minus expenditures) in the General Fund. As you can see, with expenses exceeding revenue by a growing amount, the fund balance is projected to be depleted within the next few years. Edmonds is not unique in this respect either.
The implication of this disparity between revenue growth and expenditure growth is that cities will be bringing in less money than they are spending. As with a personal checking account, if the money going out exceeds the money coming in, the City’s “savings account,” or reserve, is being utilized to cover the difference.

This means less money is available for future uses should the resources be needed. It also means that there is less money available in the City’s General Fund to cover shortfalls in those funds. In addition to sales tax, several other city revenue sources have declined the last few years, such as real estate excise tax used for maintaining or improving the city’s transportation infrastructure. This decline places pressure on the General Fund to “bail out” these other funds as resources decline in those funds. This is at a time when revenue is already outpaced by expenses in the General Fund.

The resolution to the problem of expenses growing faster than revenue is to identify ways to bring expenses in line with revenue. Options include cities tying revenue increases in taxes and fees to cost of living increases; negotiating employee compensation increases tied to no more than annual cost of living increases; cutting programs and eliminating positions; hoping a general economic recovery will benefit sales tax revenue and property taxes revenue through increased assessed value within the City; or growing their way out of the recession through economic development.

City of Edmonds officials and staff are reviewing all options and working hard to minimize or reduce expenses, grow revenue, and diversify its tax base to sustain governmental operations. It will be a challenge…

  1. With such dire budget issues facing Edmonds, it would seem that nixing the proposed round-about at Five Corners would be a wise move. Just sayin’…

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