A half-million-dollar social services budget, including a full-time social worker. Pedestrian safety and sidewalk improvements. Diversity and equity training for all city staff, boards and commissions. A permanent fund to acquire park land. Those were among the priorities outlined by Edmonds Mayor Mike Nelson during his 2021 budget address late Monday afternoon.
By speaking directly to both citizens and elected officials via Zoom and Facebook, Nelson’s remote address marked the first time that an Edmonds mayor has not made his budget announcement during a regular city council meeting. It was also the first budget address for Nelson, who was elected as Edmonds’ mayor last November.
Nelson began by noting the budget was prepared “during an unprecedented global pandemic in which a deadly virus is still infecting our city, our country and our world.” The city has taken “extreme measures” to protect public health, maintain key government services, and “along the way, come up with creative ways to keep our community safe and sane,” the mayor said.
Despite local and state government lockdowns due to the COVID-19 outbreak, the city has been able to ensure — through implemented safety measures — that “there has been no interruption of critical services to date in any of our city departments,” Nelson said.
The mayor also pointed to the city’s belt-tightening measures to minimize the financial impacts of the outbreak, which included cutting $4.5 million in expenditures from the 2020 general fund, freezing hiring and delaying the start of big projects. And he stressed the city’s ongoing efforts to help both residents and business owners weather the crisis. These included both an immediate infusion of city funds for seniors, the Edmonds Food Bank and small businesses, along with additional $1 million from the federal CARES Act, which was distributed to local businesses and individuals in need.
While the city had initially estimated that it would losing an estimated $4 million early in the pandemic, city revenues from sales taxes and property taxes haven’t been hit as hard as anticipated, Nelson said.
“Our current estimate now is that our city will lose $1.99 million in revenue in 2020 — not the $4 million originally projected” the mayor said.
For the nine months ending in September, the city has already collected $5.92 million in sales tax, compared to $6.28 million at the same time last year — a $360,000 decrease. The city actually brought in 3.7% more sales tax revenue in September — $736,091 — than September 2019, when it collected $709,684.
He attributed this better-than-expected financial news to the city’s efforts to support small businesses, its Walkable Edmonds initiative that closed a portion of Main Street to make it safer for shoppers and diners, and the city’s efforts to enable outdoor street dining citywide.
Another important contributor to the city’s coffers — the Real Estate Excise Tax — is also down just $77,501 for the first nine months of 2020, compared to same 2019 time frame.
In other good news, the city is also expecting a small increase in property tax revenue in 2021, due to new construction, Nelson said. As a result, the mayor said he will not be asking the city council to increase property taxes this year, which is allowed by law.
The city’s calculations, Nelson said, “are in line with similar projections recently released by the State Office of Financial Management. In June, the State of Washington had forecast an $8.8 billion reduction in revenues. Last week they cut that forecast in half, to $4.2 billion,” the mayor said.
Turning to the 2021 budget, Nelson said the draft proposal is based on the assumption that the recession will continue but not be as bad as originally forecast. However, to ensure financial stability, the city has cut $3.2. million from the departmental budget requests for 2021.
“COVID remains a real opportunity to refocus our efforts on community connections,” Nelson said, which includes “those that are struggling and our most vulnerable.” The pandemic also gives the city “an opportunity to refocus on staying local, rediscovering our parks, our businesses, and walkable neighborhoods,” the mayor added.
Among the highlight’s of Nelson’s proposed budget:
- Creation of a new human services program with a budget of $500,000 that would include a full-time social worker. “Unlike other cities in the region, our city has never had a human services program,” Nelson said. “It is time we did. This will help those that are seniors, those who are housing unstable and unsheltered, and prevent those from becoming homeless in the first place.”
- Continued investments in the two-mile portion of Highway 99 that runs through Edmonds, including the Gateway Project, approved in 2020, to design and install a raised center median, new pedestrian crossing to improve traffic safety and spur redevelopment. The mayor also proposed a new community renewal plan for Highway 99 aimed at setting the stage for future development of properties. This would include a special focus in the southern corridor “where problems of crime, graffiti, nuisance, code violations and general disinvestment persist,” he said. “Some areas do not feel safe and attractive for people, we hear you and we are addressing that.”
- Regarding equity and diversity, the mayor proposed creating city diversity training for all city staff, as well as for members of board and commissioners. City councilmembers are also invited to participate, he said. In addition, Nelson said he is asking for funding to update what he called “our city’s most important planning document” — the city’s Comprehensive Plan — to include racial equity. “We need to ensure our city programs and services reach all populations,” Nelson said. “This city-wide approach will work closely with residents to ensure that we meet the needs of those underserved communities.” Finally, the mayor is proposing new equity/inclusion arts grants of up to $10,000 per awardee to support projects that focus on equity and inclusion.
- Citywide pedestrian improvements of $2.2 million as well as expansion and maintenance of the city’s sidewalk program.
- Noting the significant decline of resident orca whales and Chinook salmon, Nelson said he is proposing a new Salmon Safe Certification Program. “This program will provide an in-depth assessment of our city policies, plans, procedures that impact water quality and habitat of our watershed,” the mayor said, and will include recommendations for improving environmental conditions and watershed health over the next five years.
- Creation of a new acquisition fund for city park land, seeded with $500,000, creating a permanent open space fund that would grow every year, the mayor said. “It’s important to re-imagine the role of our public lands as the solution they can be for building a more sustainable world.”
- Allocating $450,000 to the Edmonds Marsh restoration and $532,000 for needed facilities maintenance.
- Money for two major capital projects, including $6.2 million for Civic Field park, which was put on hold this year when bids came in higher than expected, and a $22 million project — “the largest project this city has ever attempted” — to replace the city’s aging sludge incinerator.
Nelson also flagged two outstanding issues: South County Fire Authority’s labor negotiations, which will impact the city’s fire services contract for an as-yet-unknown dollar amount, and the potential loss of $700,000 annually in city street repair revenue due to Initiative 976, the voter-approved measure to cut car-tab taxes, which is still in the courts.
In closing, the mayor noted “there are still many unknowns we have before us, including the pace of economic recovery as we head into winter, the potential resurgence of this virus, a realistic timeline of vaccine, how and when it will be distributed. Unfortunately, past economic recessions are a poor indicator and predictor…because their root causes are having to do with an economic imbalance, not a pandemic,” he added.
“This virus and every one of us and your actions will help decide the future health of our community and our local economy,” Nelson said. “We have seen with wearing masks and social distancing, the virus drops significantly. When we let our guard down and fail to take precautions, it comes back with a vengeance. Our budget accounts for the uncertainty that COVID lays before us. But it does not shy away from the real opportunities that lay ahead to shape our city to be more resilient, more safer, healthier and welcoming for all.”
The pandemic, Nelson added, “has exposed our vulnerabilities as a society, our social and economic inequities, racism and the climate crisis. It has exposed deep wounds that were never healed. Our little city alone cannot close this gap, but we can sure try.”
“Our future may be uncertain, but our commitment to each other is not,” Nelson continued. “You have shown we will get through this pandemic and economic uncertainty by looking out for each other.”
You can review the mayor’s entire proposed budget here.
— By Teresa Wippel