“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.
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