Improved staff-council collaboration, more citizen involvement among ideas aired at Friday budget retreat

Edmonds City Councilmember Adrienne Fraley-Monillas provides introductory remarks at Friday’s budget retreat.

“I think some level of cooperation is in everyone’s best interest,” said meeting facilitator Mike Bailey as he launched a four-hour-long budget retreat Friday for members of the Edmonds City Council and city staff.

Two of the city’s seven councilmembers — Diane Buckshnis and Kristiana Johnson — were absent from the retreat. This was noted later in the meeting by Edmonds City Council President Adrienne Fraley-Monillas, who said it would be hard to have any follow-up planning discussion Friday due to the fact that “30 percent of the council is missing.”

Bailey, former City of Redmond finance director, walked the council through a range of budget roles and responsibilities with a focus on how the city administration — mayor and staff — can work more effectively with councilmembers to develop a budget that reflects priorities of both branches of government as well as its residents.

The City of Edmonds currently has an annual budget that must be balanced and adopted by Dec. 31 of the year prior to when it becomes effective. The mayor generally delivers his budget address, and the draft budget, to the council in early October, which is followed by several weeks of council review, public hearings and a vote.

One option discussed at length Friday was the possibility of the city moving to a biennial budget. Among the advantages of developing a two-year budget: It would give the council and staff a chance to focus on longer-range planning, and it could also free up staff time — in the non-budget-development year — to work on other projects. Shifting to a biennial budget will take some time logistically, Bailey said, and it’s important to make accommodations for that if a decision is made to switch.

A chunk of time Friday was also spent discussing how to best engage citizens in the budget process so they feel like they have both an understanding of city priorities and a say in what is eventually approved by the end of December.

Bailey shared experiences he had working on budgeting with several cities, highlighting in particular his time in both Redmond and in Renton. He acknowledged the built-in power structure of a strong-mayor form of government, in which the mayor directs staff to work on specific projects and budget priorities. This can be “messy,” he said, once the mayor delivers his or her proposed city budget to the council.

That budget then becomes the council’s spending plan and it is up to councilmembers to “collectively decide what is best for the community,” Bailey said.

“If they think it’s wrong, it’s up to them to find ways to make it right,” he added.

City Attorney Jeff Taraday said that sometimes it is hard for city councils generally to push back on spending they don’t like, or to propose other priorities, because they don’t have the required expertise or access to staff.

In response, Bailey stressed that budgeting is “a team sport” that requires everyone — staff and council — to work together to benefit citizens.

Councilmember Tom Mesaros shared his frustration that even though the council and city staff had a budget retreat in 2018, with the goal of identifying council priorities, the council did not follow that process when the budget discussions came up. As a result, councilmembers made a total of 46 budget amendments that weren’t discussed during the original budget planning process, he added.

“Until we have that ability as a council to be able to approach this as a team, we are never going to get agreement on when to stop amendments,” Mesaros said.

Bailey replied that if the council is working well together, council budget amendments “should be the exception rather than the rule.” The ideal situation is for the council to work together on a list of priorities, and “you vote and agree and it’s on your list.”

Councilmember Mike Nelson said he was frustrated that the council didn’t learn until October of last year what the administration’s budget goals were. Seeing the budget information earlier would be helpful so that the council has time to provide input, Nelson added.

Meeting facilitator Mike Bailey talks about the City of Renton’s Business Plan.

Bailey pointed to two key steps that city staff and council need to take to ensure a more successful budgeting process: Adopt a list of city priorities and adopt a budget calendar. He cited the City of Renton’s Business Plan, which includes a vision and mission statement, as an example of a living policy document that is used to guide the city. The one-page plan is everywhere at Renton City Hall, from the hallways to the front desk to employee’s cubicles, Bailey added.

One common thread that came out of Friday’s discussion was the need to start the budget development process sooner, perhaps with budget discussions as early as May. Other key ideas listed following small-group brainstorming sessions included:

– Establishing city revenue numbers early, and sticking to them.

– Linking budget requests to the city’s vision.

– Obtaining citizen input early in the budgeting process to avoid last-minute changes, and improving communications generally with the public including better use of social media.

– Giving both the council and the community more time to comment on the budget plan, outside of regular council meetings. This could include separate budget presentations, perhaps on Saturdays, to provide an opportunity for a more focused and thorough discussion on budget proposals..

– Coordinating the budget process with other city planning processes, including the comprehensive plan and the capital facilities plan, which impact the budget.

– Emphasizing the importance of collegiality to better facilitate budget discussions, including collaboration, understanding, trust and compromise during budget negotiations.

“All of these things are going to improve trust and collaboration,” Bailey said. “There’s a combination of approach and process that helps do that.”

To follow up on Friday’s discussion, councilmembers and staff agreed they will meet in the next week or two to talk about next steps for improving the budget process.

— Story and photos by Teresa Wippel

18 Replies to “Improved staff-council collaboration, more citizen involvement among ideas aired at Friday budget retreat”

  1. The city tried two-year budgets – 2007/2008 and 2009/2010. They reverted back to annual budgets in 2011 – probably because forecasting revenues became difficult during that period of time..


    1. Forecasting methods have improved over the last 10 years and forecasting call always be a range to the outer periods and updated regularly to tighten the range. We could simply start doing some modeling of revenues immediately, retrofit the models to past data and see how to account for the variances over time. Property tax modeling as an example is pretty straight forward. Other than EMS taxes, the rest of property taxes is pretty fixed and predictable regardless of the changing evaluations of property values. $8B went down to $6B then steadily climbed back to the current level of $11B. But during those changes the revenue from property taxes was very predictable.


      1. Sales and excise taxes are the more difficult ones to accurately predict. When there’s a poor economy and the revenue is over estimated that really matters. When there’s a strong economy, like the past several years, revenues are often greater than predicted and that doesn’t matter as much.


  2. The mere fact that two key people were missing at this long scheduled budget retreat begs the question of how good our government processes are in Edmonds. Short of a major medical event or death in the family, I don’t see a real good excuse for these folks to be absent. It upsets me to the point where I will probably change my vote in one instance.

    In the broader scheme of things, I don’t think the Strong Mayor Weak Council system with “at large” elected Councilpersons will ever make for a smooth operation, beneficial and fair to all the citizens. Councilperson and Mayoral aspirants simply have to curry the favor of two or three of the strong special interest groups in town to get elected, especially the real estate/business duality that seems to want to control everything. The Mayor simply has too much power in general and the Councilpersons don’t have to answer to a specific group of constituents based on where they reside in town. As a result the so called “Bowl” (where I happen to live) gets most of the attention and perhaps the lions share of the available resources.

    With a district system you would have easy access to someone you might know or at least your friends know, and you could have neighborhood meetings with your representative any time you wanted, not having to wait for your 3 minutes of glory at City Council meetings. In short, all the “feel good, let’s all get along” meetings in the world can’t make a good system out of a flawed one. The strife and disconnects will continue. I’d bet my life on it.


  3. No number of meetings or consultants will ever cause a group to get along. Not getting along is in the DNA of some and at their ages that will never change. The only answer is to get rid of those who can’t get along. Two that didn’t get along went with the election of four years ago. One more needs to be gone this election and one or two more in the election two years from now.


    1. One thing that can happen with this election cycle is that a council member may give up their seat. This will generate the need to appoint a new council member. Probably impossible for the current council to do an appointment and that would leave the new council the duty to appoint.

      When looking at the way council has approached the budget in the most recent years, it will be interesting to watch the maneuvering that will happen. Old council vs new council, lame ducks vs ongoing. All this with a rosy review view. With the elections in Nov and the budget process already underway, this should be fun to watch. Missing from the budget equation will be general public input and the folks who have the ear of council members will likely be at the for front if requests. Stay tuned, this will be fun.


  4. As a citizen attendee this is the first time I attended a retreat. I found the experience very informative and worthwhile. The quality of ideas from both staff and council were impressive to address improving the budget process. As I listened and wrote ideas, I realized that the budget touches everything important to the citizens of Edmonds. It is really an important process. Arguably, the single most important.

    To me, the focus should be on the good ideas presented by the five council members and staff attending, rather than the two members not attending. Yes, there are challenges but the end result would be a better process for all players. For the two missing members that ship has sailed.

    I may be naive but in my way of thinking it would take only one, two, or three members whatever to embrace the plan and work with staff to implement. All seemed willing and had great ideas to help the process.

    What a great budget plan change and process for citizens, council, and staff to happen.


  5. I was there for most of the meeting, I left just at the public engagement piece, but I had heard Mr Taraday’s comments at the earlier retreat.

    It was a good budget development presentation that talked about budget and time efficiencies. Ron Wambolt is right about the 2 yr budget cycle. I experienced it during a rapid economic downturn. I hope the conversation continues in this direction.


  6. Wow, some people are just two old to get along and that is built into their DNA – it’s a scientific fact. What we need are just 7 people who are always congenial, never question each other’s motivation or rightness or wrongness about any given issue and always back the Mayor and his almost perfect city employees views and assessments of all the issues and spending plans. (Please forgive me , Diane, I’m switching my vote back again and I forgive you for not showing up. I was wrong).

    Yes property taxes are predictable because property owners tend to be predictable people. So let’s keep taxing the Hell out of them. Jr. needs a great education and that old “skin flint Wright” in Edmonds needs to pony up more dough as soon as possible!


      1. Councilmember Buckshnis, Councilmember Johnson:
        You two monitor this website; please tell us why you did not attend the budget retreat last week.


  7. I think the budget process should start in the Spring with the Mayor conducting neighborhood meetings asking the citizens what their priorities are for their neighborhood.


  8. Vivian is right on point about gathering citizen input right up front. When we did the Strategic Action Plan the whole process was very engaging to gather ideas from the citizens and then to put some priority to the work to be done. The work started in 2011 and we engaged more than 2500 people in Retreats, Focus groups, Stakeholder meetings, Business owner surveys, Employee surveys, youth surveys, Chartettes, and voter household surveys. There were a number of “budget” type issues that if implemented back then we would be in a far better position now. Funding sources for Parks, Roads, Yost Pool, and plans to create a sustainable budgets. An most importantly the introduction of Budgeting for Outcomes! The council has been briefed on this process many times by many people and finance directors have created plans for implementation but we still do not do the kind of process that this current retreat talked about.
    I would be curious to know if anyone has some thoughts on why we have not gone forward with Budgeting for Outcomes? As an observer of the budget process for more than 10 years I have some thoughts but do not want to taint anyone’s view point.


  9. What we need to do is switch to a grassroots system of Council people being elected out of specific geographical districts so immediate citizen input is virtually automatic and virtually always done in real or near real time (not on the last Friday of every third month or in three minute blurbs at city Council meetings where the commenters are treated like some sort of necessary evil). Yes, this would cost more election money and be more complicated, but that is the price for the citizen being heard from the get-go (in regular neighborhood meetings and casual conversation) and having a specific someone to blame and vote out if this isn’t happening. You could probably actually eliminate some of the broader public meetings where people from the city present a plan and basically tell everyone how good it is. Maybe we could also eliminate the need for so much expensive professional consulting work where the tax money is basically just down a rat hole in the end.


    1. I agree. To add to this is, there should be an informed decision making process that works with the competing / non collaborating departments to look at the projects that are being reviewed and decide what is the highest priority. So much more can be done effectively in-house before hiring a company for a lot of money that does not know the requirements, talks to all the parties involved and come up with all the alternatives, before just jumping into an idea and the city wants to move forward. Waste of time and money.


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