Should the City of Edmonds move from a one-year to a two-year budget cycle? How can the city better engage citizens in the budget process? What should the city prioritize and de-emphasize in the 2022 budget? Those were among the topics discussed during the Edmonds City Council’s budget retreat Saturday afternoon via Zoom.
The meeting facilitator was consultant Mike Bailey, a former finance director for the cities of Redmond, Renton and Lynnwood, who also ran a similar budget retreat for the council in 2020.
In opening Saturday’s meeting, Bailey noted that during last year’s gathering, many of the councilmembers were newly elected and thus unfamiliar with the city’s budget process. This year, Bailey said, councilmembers can be congratulated for adopting a number of the approximately 15 priorities they had identified as important to them during the 2020 retreat. These included hiring a full-time social worker, an increased emphasis on human services programs, Highway 99 corridor safety, enhanced support for 4th Avenue Arts Corridor, identifying park land and open space, and ensuring employee safety in light of the COVID-19 pandemic.
He also reminded councilmembers of their important role in developing policy guidance for the budget, which the mayor presents in draft form each fall, followed by council discussion and amendments based on public feedback. Under state law, the final budget must be approved by the end of the year.
Clear communication to the public about budget priorities is key, said Bailey, who described that process as “telling these stories in a way that people who are paying for the services can understand it.”
He also noted it’s important for the council to balance accountability vs. flexibility when developing budget policies. Councilmembers are responsible for oversight when the city decides to accumulate debt, dip into funding reserves or make investments. However, he added that too much council involvement in day-to-day budgeting decisions can affect the ability of staff to work efficiently. “Whenever you increase accountability and decrease flexibility, it will affect efficiency,” Bailey said.
Bailey acknowledged the difficulty of communicating budget messages during an era of remote meetings due to COVID-19 gathering restrictions. “Even though the pandemic has changed everything, the fundamentals have become even more important,” he said. Under these circumstances, it’s key for councilmembers and staff to be prepared so they can communicate effectively, and in a thoughtful and respectful way, he said.
Bailey also listed several other sample topics the council could consider when developing budget policies, including whether to adopt a priority-based budget, and the possibility of changing the budgeting cycle from an annual, one-year process to two-year, biennial budgeting.
Councilmembers then were asked to review how last year’s budgeting process went and also discuss their priorities for 2022.
One area of concern for some councilmembers was the need to have discussions on the city’s Capital Improvement Program (CIP) and Capital Facilities Plan (CFP) earlier in the budget process, as that work involves long-range planning and can inform budget priorities. Last year, the CIP and CFP were reviewed at the end of the budget process, and as a result the discussion was rushed, Councilmember Kristiana Johnson said.
“I really feel the weight of that, year after year after year,” Johnson said. “This should be the year we really evaluate the CIP/CFP.”
Councilmember Diane Buckshnis agreed, stating the city spends most of its discretionary funds on the CIP and CFP. “This is the tool that should really be a high priority for the council,” she said.
Councilmember Vivian Olson said that in developing the budget, she would like to see the city do a better job of “harnessing the power of volunteers” to help with city projects, simliar to how the Edmonds Chamber of Commerce uses volunteers extensively to put on events. Similiarly, citizens should be better engaged to identify budget priorities that they can “stand behind and be a part of,” Olson said.
Councilmembers expressed a range of other ideas during a round-robin discussion, including the following:
Luke Distelhorst said he would like to focus on transportation mobility and how people get around the city, “looking at the whole chain” from sidewalks to bike lanes to trails to ADA access to tripping hazards. Another priority Distelhorst listed was creating a city office of human rights — an idea also supported by Councilmember Laura Johnson.
Laura Johnson also said she would like to see increased accessibility “especially around disability language and anything to do with how people people move around Edmonds,” as well as ensuring that government services and communications are accessible to all city residents.
Adrienne Fraley-Monillas stressed the importance of implementing the city’s plan to enhance Highway 99 and also create a satellite city office on the highway. That priority was also listed by Distelhorst.
Susan Paine said she would like the council to focus on the city’s downtown BD1 zoning code design standards, “just in case there’s an earthquake,” to ensure that during a rebuilding process the city can “help keep Edmonds looking like Edmonds.”
Kristiana Johnson said she would like to see the city update its strategic plan, which was approved in 2013 after extensive public involvement. Among the priorities developed through that plan were the construction of a new senior center and a downtown restroom, and those have both been completed, Johnson said, adding that’s why it’s important to “keep the strategic plan relevant in our budget process.”
Vivian Olson said her top priority was building maintenance and also taking a closer look at the city’s aging infrastructure, with the idea of reviewing the city’s existing building assets to determine if there are some the city no longer needs.
Many councilmembers said the city should focus on its watersheds and their role in salmon recovery, including the Edmonds Marsh and Perrinville Creek. Laura Johnson and Susan Paine also talked about the importance of urban forestry management in relationship to watershed protection. Luke Distelhorst suggested working with the Washington State Department of Transportation to mitigate pollutants from Highway 104 ferry traffic that end up in the Edmonds Marsh.
Other priorities mentioned include:
– Preserving the walkable nature of Edmonds. (Vivian Olson). She noted that the community’s robust discussion about a plan to add bike lanes in Edmonds neighborhoods has highlighted how much residents value walkability.
– Continuing to prioritize rewriting the city code. (Olson, Kristiana Johnson)
– Social justice. Vivian Olson stressed the need for “full community engagement about justice and how we want to approach that as a city. We care about that.”
– “Equity and inclusion for the other side of Edmonds” was a priority listed by Fraley-Monillas, who lives in Edmonds’ Highway 99 area, noting the neighborhood has few sidewalks and street lights, and just one park with few parking spaces. “Having equity there is an important piece,” she said. “Until we start looking at this from an equity lens nothing is going to change.”
– Better communications with residents. Kristiana Johnson wondered if the city was making the best use of its communications officer, particularly when it comes to serving city boards and commissions. Distelhorst — who works in communications for Communty Transit — noted that the city’s public information officer position is only part-time and he sees the value in expanding the communications staff. Olson added she would like the city to approach communication and engagement by starting with “this is the problem we are trying to solve,” as well as doing a better job of “engaging the whole comunity.”
– Transportation projects were mentioned by Kristiana Johnson, a former transportation planner. “We still need to fix the potholes, pave the streets, maintain the infrastructure that we have right now,” she said.
– Subarea planning and multifamily design plans for neighborhoods was a priority listed by Paine as a possible next step if the council approves current Edmonds Housing Commission recommendations.
– A focus on youth initiatives was cited by Laura Johnson, who serves as the council liaison to the city’s Youth Commission. “They’ve been through a lot lately,” she said of the city’s youth impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic.
– Another priority of Paine’s was ensuring that Edmonds businesses and its “most vulnerable people” receive COVID recovery dollars expected to be allocated to the city through the federal government’s newly approved American Rescue Plan. Similarly, Distelhorst said he wanted to make sure that the city continued to fund its newly created Human Services Department and staff, noting that when COVID-19 eviction moratoriums expire it will leave the city’s renters vulnerable.
– Prioritizing parking concerns. (Olson)
– Looking at the process of budgeting by priorities (Fraley-Monillas) as a way to engage citizens in helping the council prioritize budget items.
– Continuing work on the 4th Avenue Cultural Corridor (Kristiana Johnson), which “supports historic downtown Edmonds and enhances it as an arts community,” Johnson said.
Councilmembers were then asked to identify any areas they would “de-emphasize.” There weren’t many ideas mentioned for budget cutting, but here are some of those cited:
– Luke Distelhorst said he didn’t see a need at this time for the $55,000 allocated in the 2021 city budget for the purchase and operation of a downtown trolley.
– Vivian Olson wondered whether the current city boards and commisisons are “being utilitized for purposes they were set up for.” For example, she said, the Citizens Economic Development Commission wasn’t asked to weigh in on the city’s plan to implement Walkable Main Street. While the boards and commissions are comprised of volunteers, staff time is devoted to assisting those groups, she said.
– Laura Johnson questioned the city’s reliance on professional and consltant services — a topic that also came up during the last year’s retreat — and asked whether it might be more efficient to hire staff instead.
– Kristiana Johnson said the city should look at boards or commisions staffed by consultants, with the possibility of “making minor adjustments and saving money.”
Bailey acknowledged that it’s more difficult for councilmembers to identify areas to cut than items to add, but stressed it was important to do so. “How do you make all this fit?” he asked.
Speaking to the flow of the budget process, Bailey recommended that all participants have a calendar to work from so both councilembers and the community have the same expectations about when budget information will be received, when workshops will be held and the deadlines for approval.
Councilmembers agreed that this is important and also discussed what worked well — and what didn’t — during last year’s budget development. One concern several expressed was the number of council budget amendments submitted very late in the budget process, giving councilmembers very little time to consider them in advance of a council meeting.
Councilmembers also generally agreed that they felt the city administration gave them enough time to propose budget amendments and gather community input prior to making final decisions. However, one frustration was the amount of time that staff budget presentations took on various budget items, leaving councilmembers with little time to ask follow-up questions.
City Finance Director Dave Turley, who joined councilmembers later in the retreat for further discussion, said that staff will work with council to revisit the way the budget is presented, to ensure it meets the needs of councilmembers.
Both Turley and facilitator Mike Bailey then talked about the advantages of biennial budgeting, instead of the annual budget cycle the city currently follows. Fifty-five cities in Washington now have biennial budgets, including the nearby cities of Lynnwood, Mountlake Terrace and Shoreline, Turley said.
Having a biennial budget encourages both council and staff “to think over multiple years instead of thinking in a one-year cycle,” Turley said. In addition, passing a budget for two years means that staff has more time for project analysis during the off year.
“It’s something I’m totally in favor of,” Turley said, adding that Mayor Mike Nelson also supports the idea.
If a decision is made to pursue a biennial budget cycle, state law requires that cities do so in an odd-numbered year, so planning would have to start in 2022 for a 2023-25 budget.
Both Turley and Bailey noted there are some disadvantages to biennial budgets, starting with the fact that shifting to the new format will take more time during the first year. There is also a “perceived loss of control” by the council because they are approving a budget for two years at a time. However, Turley said, if circumstances require it the council can make adjustments to the budget anytime it wants to.
There also can be more difficulty forecasting revenues and expenditures, although Turley noted that the city is already looking at long-term impacts of its budgeting. “If I’m forecasting revenues for the first year, I already forecasting for multiple years,” he said.
Finally, there is a concern that the jurisdiction may spend too much time making budget amendments during the off year instead of taking time to focus on other areas.
Bailey said that while the concerns are valid, the council can work to avoid them by thinking strategically.
“You do get that off year off so be intentional about that,” he advised. “Think about how you would invest that time.”
He also encouraged the council to not “overcomplicate things” and worry too much about what might be a less-than-ideal process during the first year after shifting to a biennial budget process .
“That first year is messy,” Bailey said. “It’s important that you get up and going. To some extent let it be messy.”
— By Teresa Wippel