Hiring a full-time social worker. Ramping up sidewalk projects. Focusing on overdue infrastructure repairs. Rewriting the city code.
Those were among the priorities that Edmonds city councilmembers identified during their remote budget retreat held vis Zoom Wednesday, July 29.
The nearly four-hour discussion was facilitated by consultant Mike Bailey, a former finance director for the cities of Redmond, Renton and Lynnwood.
Much of the retreat focused on reviewing the budget process, roles and responsibilities for municipalities, plus best practices for city governments. Then it came time for councilmembers to share their priorities for developing the 2021 budget. The mayor is responsible for presenting a preliminary budget to the council by the end of October, after which the council discusses and amends the budget, and engages the public for feedback. The final budget must be approved by the end of the year.
When it came time for councilmembers to share their ideas, they did so in order of seniority. Then, the process was repeated several times, with councilmembers adding new ideas during each round.
Councilmembers were also asked what areas of the budget they would de-emphasize to fund new programs.
Council President Adrienne Fraley-Monillas started off, stating that her highest priority would be to hire a full-time social worker for the city. That person would create his or her own department, and the recently hired part-time human services program manager would report to that new employee. Fraley-Monillas noted that Edmonds will be losing the part-time embedded police social worker position that it shares with the Lynnwood Police Department, since the City of Lynnwood is cutting the position due to budgetary concerns. As a result, she said, Edmonds Acting Police Chief Jim Lawless suggested that that the funding for that position be added to help fund a full-time social worker position, “so the cost would be minimal.”
“Jim Lawless is very interested in doing this and wants to work with the council,” Fraley-Monillas said, adding it’s possible the new social worker position could also do some “community policing social work that would be a benefit to people who need that level of service.”
When asked by facilitator Bailey to explain how the city would benefit from such a position, Fraley-Monillas said the position would focus on a range of issues in the city, including those who are mentally ill, “extremely poor and indigent people who need to know where resources are,” and providing services to those who are homeless.
“I’m sure as most have seen, we have an increase in homeless that are very visible and now they are even in the downtown on 5th Avenue pushing shopping carts,” she said. “So having somebody that can connect with these people would be a benefit to the city.”
Councilmember Diane Buckshnis said her top budget priority would be to fix the city’s Capital Improvement Program (CIP) and the Capital Facilities Plan (CFP) “to de-emphasize the $16 million stormwater project (related to the Edmonds Marsh) and moving it back into parks as a near-shore estuary, so we can actually treat it as a regional park.” In that way, Buckshnis said, “utility taxpayers won’t have to restore the marsh through taxpayer utilities.”
“I want to achieve more sidewalk projects within the city,” said Councilmember Kristiana Johnson when it was her turn to share. “I think if we base it on a priority and a percentage, that would be really excellent,” she said. “People all the time complain about their sidewalks.” Even though the city now has a dedicated sidewalk crew, “I haven’t seen any evidence that we are moving forward,”Johnson said. As for how sidewalk construction could be funded, Johnson wondered if it could come from the parks department, since “the sidewalks do provide a recreation opportunity. Although I doubt if there’s support for that.”
Councilmember Vivian Olson said that she would like to focus on “overdue infrastructure repairs,” noting that a recent leak in Edmonds City Hall “was just a reminder of how many things we’ve neglected.” Olson also expressed an interest in exploring the privatization of aging city buildings — she used the Carnegie Library building that now houses the Edmonds Historical Museum as an example. “These old buildings always cost a lot to maintain and the ones we’re keeping we need to maintain, but the ones that we could possibly privatize, it’s an opportunity to have money coming into the budget that’s used to offset the repairs of the things we’re keeping.”
Councilmember Susan Paine said her top priority is to hire a temporary, three-year position “to help support rewriting a lot of the (city) codes that have been just languishing and need a lot of the knots unsnarled.” While a half-time code writer position was in the budget for this year, that position was put on hold due to the difficulty of finding a half-time employee. With a full-time temporary person “you could actually make some good progress,” Paine said. “There’s been frustration for many, many years about our land use code, building code and some of the other codes.”
To fund this work, Paine suggested “de-emphasizing some of the professional services (she noted public works in particular have many of these contracts), which can get very, very expensive and reducing overtime costs, probably from law enforcement, to make sure that’s in balance,” An emphasize on hiring someone to update the code was seconded by both Buckshnis and Councilmember Laura Johnson is a later round, with Johnson stressing the importance of making that updated code information accessible to citizens.
Like Fraley-Monillas, Laura Johnson said that her number-one budget priority “would be expansion of the human services department,” including adding — “at minimum” — a full-time social worker. “I think the need was already there but especially with all the current and coming impacts of COVID-19 and the economic downturn, it’s going to increase,” she said. The focus of that position, she said, would be on keeping people in their homes and helping those who are “currently unhoused.” Potentially, the city could look at referring domestic violence victims to the new human services department rather than the police department since “women are sometimes not comfortable to work through the police department,” she said. As for funding the social work position, in addition to the cost savings identified by Fraley-Monillas, Johnson suggested using the money saved by not paying half the cost of a police officer at Edmonds-Woodway High School. That position was eliminated by the Edmonds School Board in June.
Councilmember Luke Distelhorst said his top budget item would be to increase community wellness efforts, which includes — in addition to a social worker — providing mental health and addiction services. Distelhorst said that he also had a conversation with Acting Police Chief Lawless about “using some current police funding for these services.”
Other ideas suggested by councilmembers during the Wednesday budget retreat:
- Reallocating staff to community policing along Highway 99 “to allow for police to be up there on a. continuous basis to get to know the residents and the businesses and the process and what’s occurring up there.” (Fraley-Monillas)
- Continuing work on the 4th Avenue Arts Corridor (Kristiana Johnson)
- Putting more time and effort into addressing the parking issues in the downtown core, “where it’s been such a challenge.” Among the considerations: one-way streets or angled parking or a small parking garage. (Olson)
- Purchasing land, particularly in the Lake Ballinger area, to help support open space for recreation as the city becomes more dense due to population growth. (Paine)
- Hiring a full-time communications and engagement person. That was proposed by Councilmember Luke Distelhorst, who is employed in public information with Community Transit. The city currently has a part-time position, which isn’t enough hours to meet the needs of the city, the council and the citizens, Distelhorst said.
- Updating the city’s strategic plan “to get our projects and priorities in order and coordinate that with the public.” (Kristiana Johnson)
- Pursuing protected historical status (state or national) for the Edmonds movie theater. (Olson)
- Providing funds for the city’s safety office to purchase personal protective equipment, such as masks, for city workers. (Paine)
- Expanding and preserving city infrastructure to increase connectedness and safety citywide, including trails, sidewalks, bike lanes, crosswalks and four-way stops by schools. (Laura Johnson)
- Multimodal city infrastructure, “making sure that all neighborhoods have…the connectivity so people have easy access not only for recreation but for going to the store, going to school, for gong to whatever else they are going to in the city.” (Distelhorst)
- Watershed planning for both Perrinville and Shell creeks. (Kristiana Johnson)
At the end of the retreat, Council President Fraley-Monillas cautioned councilmembers to be focused on low-cost or no-cost items as 2020 budget discussions get underway. “Many of these ideas, we won’t be able to afford in the coming year,” she said.
— By Teresa Wippel