What to cut, what to keep? Budget choices dominate special Thursday council meeting

Councilmember Susan Paine discusses budget priorities during Thursday’s meeting.

The city’s draft 2024 budget was top of mind for members of the Edmonds City Council during a special Thursday night meeting.

After addressing some staff-proposed budget changes along with a few of their own amendments, councilmembers agreed that it will be necessary to roll up their collective sleeves to make the cuts necessary to ensure a stable budget in 2024.

In addition, added Councilmember Jenna Nand, “We have to have the political will to make unpopular decisions.”

In early October, the council approved a resolution declaring a fiscal emergency, which authorized the city to use general fund operating reserves for 2023 general fund expenses. That was after learning that the city’s draft 2024 budget, released in early October, had projected an ending budget fund balance of $6.64 million this year, requiring the city to dip into its reserves.

There was more disappointing news last week, when the council heard that — based on the latest third-quarter budget report — the city’s estimated ending fund balance for 2023 is $3 million. That is $3.6 million lower than projected when the budget was prepared in late summer.

With that backdrop, the council has been eyeing for the past few weeks how to reduce expenses while maintaining essential city programs and protecting existing staff. While some actions were approved Thursday, there will more detailed budget amendments to come during a special council meeting scheduled for next Monday, Dec. 4 at 6 p.m.

Councilmembers considered a motion by Council President Neil Tibbott to reduce the purchasing authority of the mayor and staff — now set at $100,000 and $50,000 respectively — by 50% unless they obtain council approval. The proposal generated questions about contract spending limits as well as a range of questions among councilmembers about unintendeed consequences. It also prompted a brief exchange between Councilmember Will Chen and Mayor Mike Nelson, when Chen talked about administrative overspending, adding “I think with new leadership, different styles, probably it’s going to be a different direction (in 2024).”

“Really?” replied Nelson, who lost to challenger Mike Rosen in the November general election. “I had hoped you would keep this respectful, Councilmember Chen, and all councilmembers.”

Chen again brought back his idea — discussed at the Nov. 21 council meeting — asking the administration to reduce overall expenditure by $4 million — but with a twist. Noting the council’s upcoming decision Dec. 5 on whether to continue studying the Landmark 99 proposal — which the city has not budgeted for and has an estimated purchase price of $37 million — Chen proposed “a tradeoff.”

“I would respectfully invite Mayor Nelson to fully cooperate with the council to find opportunity to reduce overall expenditures so that we can have funds to fund the (Landmark) project to move to the next stage,” Chen said.

Councilmember Will Chen again suggested an overall $4 million reduction in the city’s budget.

City Attorney Jeff Taraday then explained — as he did last week — that while the council can make any changes it wants to the mayor’s proposed budget, including adopting Chen’s motion, “the one thing the council cannot force the mayor to do is to essentially deliver a second proposed budget with $4 million less in expenditure.”

Chen received no support from other councilmembers on his idea.

“It is our responsibility as councilmembers to make these decisions,” said Councilmember Susan Paine. “I think that there are opportunities to actually consider making some revenue choices.” Specifically, she mentioned revisiting the installation of red-light cameras and transferring $2 million from the city’s building maintenance fund to the general fund, two ideas that the council rejected earlier this month.

Councilmember Chris Eck said the risk of Chen’s proposal is that “we are actually compelling staff to make extreme choices that might not be made could we be more thoughtful with our suggestions. I think we can all agree that staffing changes should be a last resort, and to do something this broad to me, it is unnecessary when we can be more specific — and I’d actually like to see us do that work.”

Councilmember Diane Buckshnis said Chen’s “horse trading” took her by surprise. “I think it’s really shocking that he would make some sort of statement that he’s going to pass something that is $37 million just to have the mayor reduce by $4 (million). These are two separate topics.”

Councilmember Vivian Olson, left, says the council faces tough choices ahead.

And Councilmember Vivian Olson added that while she appreciated Chen’s sentiment of wanting to cut $4 million, she stayed up the night before looking for line-item cuts, and only came up with $1.25 million.

“It’s not trading this for the Landmark, it’s are we going to do bonds to make sure that we can pay our bills next year,” Olson said. “Yes, we need to cut $4 million but it’s going to be a very painful process to do that.”

Councilmember Nand referred to discussions earlier in the meeting, when staff-generated budget amendments were proposed. Among those was a staff proposal to bring back the Meadowdale Preschool program — following significant public outcry — after it had been recommended for elimination after the conclusion of the 2023-24 school year. The program has experienced a decline in enrollment, with just 19 students enrolled this year — likely due to competition from the Edmonds School District, which has added preschool to some of its schools. The Meadowdale Preschool has also seen a significant increase in expenses, particularly due to payroll, and projected revenues in 2024 are just $28,500 compared to $64,956 in expenses.

Councilmembers talked about a range of options for increasing revenue and decreasing expenses — and in the end decided they were not ready to take a vote whether to bring back the program. Deputy Director Shannon Burley noted that the district preschools had more amenities and the price point between the two programs was about the same. She said that staff would work to increase enrollment at Meadowdale, but that there wasn’t much room to cut expenses since most of it was salary.

“We spent the first part of this evening discussing things like defunding the Meadowdale Preschool, which  the staff had already recommended, and this council did not have the political will to do that,” Nand said. “We have to have the political will to take unpopular decisions if we want to reduce $4 million in spending within the budget.”

Chen then withdrew his motion, stating that he will support the approach to “just roll up our sleeves and go line by line.” He stressed however, that the council is committed to protecting city staff. “The intention is not to impact peoples’ jobs or careers,” Chen said.

Administrative Services Director Dave Turley goes over staff-proposed budget changes.

In addition to making no decision on the Meadowdale Preschool proposal, other council action Tuesday on staff-proposed changes for the 2024 budget included:

– Approval of increases to the general fund reflecting a decision from the Edmonds Citizens Salary Commission earlier this year to increase salaries for both the council and the mayor. Some councilmembers said they would gladly give up the increase in light of the city’s budget situation, but the commission’s decision is binding and must be adopted. The cost is $38,685 for council increases and $21,904 for the mayor.

– Approval of budget changes reflected by the council’s recent approval of a utility rate increase, which will result in a net overall positive impact of $853,231.

– Rejection of proposed transfer of $30,000 from the general fund to the municipal arts acquisition fund. As part of broader cost-cutting measures, this transfer was not included in the 2023 or 2024 budgets. Department staff asked that this transfer be added back to the 2024 budget consistent with city ordinance, but Councilmember Olson proposed not allocating it for now, given the budget crunch. Council President Neil Tibbott said it may be possible to revisit the transfer later in 2024 as a budget amendment if funding allows it.

– Approval of a proposed budget from the Edmonds Downtown Business Improvement District (BID), which included some “small tweaks,” Administrative Services Director Dave Turley said. A full report from the BID is expected in January.

– Approval of Edmonds Police Department administrative staff promotions aimed at improving department efficiencies. The impact on the general fund is $50,021, and budget had already been allocated to cover the change.

– Approval of a $380,000 budget reduction for traffic impact fees based on estimates from the city’s planning department on what’s expected for new construction in 2024.

– Approval of an estimated $200,414 to cover a contract — still being negotiated — for the city’s commissioned police officers.

As for its own amendments, the council agreed to delete from the budget a $125,000 staff request to upgrade security systems in city facilities and structures, as it wasn’t clear how the funds would be used.

And it rejected by a 2-5 vote a request from Councilmember Paine to move $250,000 remaining in the city’s American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) fund to support the city’s current contract with South County Fire for fire and emergency services.

The council on Nov. 21 approved a motion to allocate $6.25 million from Edmonds’ remaining $6.6 million in ARPA funds to South County Fire, but agreed to leave $250,000 in the ARPA account. Councilmembers Nand and Olson said they were hopeful those funds could be used for grants to assist small businesses still recovering from the pandemic.

On Thursday night, Paine — supported by Chen — argued it would be “prudent” for the council to move the funds into the fire account now, but both Nand and Olson made the case for keeping the money in the ARPA account as long as possible. If the city ends up needing the money to fill urgent holes in the budget, the councilmembers agreed they would not fight the transfer.

The council also approved $44,500 from the council’s 2023 contingency fund for a fire services feasibility assessment conducted by Fitch and Associates. The intent is to evaluate the current fire service delivery models and the efficacy of the Regional Fire Authority (RFA) proposal, an evaluation of the creating an internal fire department, and potential contractual relationship with another provider.

The firm is known to the city and the fire authority, as in 2016, Fitch and Associates issued a report that analyzed South County Fire’s services. Tibbott said the firm is “very, very data driven,”which will help the city decide the best approach for future fire service.

— By Teresa Wippel





      1. I saw this and I believe another post saying that Ms. Eck is ill with perhaps covid. So, I did want to say to our new CC member I am sorry you are feeling poorly and that you get well real soon.

  1. I don’t know how you do it without cutting some staff I don’t see a problem with it do you think staff would show the same loyalty and stay in the job with a better job offer somewhere else? I am sure there are many employees that are working their wage or quiet quitting recent worker trends. Should getting a job with our city come with a you will always have a job clause? We have had many new positions created recently some might say they are needed but I would argue we got along just fine before we had them and we will likely get along just fine without them. Should government be the largest single employer? Do we want limited government or do we want government with its fingers in everything? I say the hippo is to fat and shedding a few pounds will likely make it more healthy.

  2. Councilmember Diane Buckshnis’ frankness and willingness to call out BS on the dias will be missed. Council members Paine’s idea of reinstating questionable revenues isn’t going to solve the problem. The sitcom continues.

  3. The fact of the matter is City Administration FAILED in their obligation to propose a balanced budget for 2024 that took into account their overspending in 2023 and dipping into the City’s reserve funds without taxpayer’s permission. City Administration had to know they were overspending, whether due to inflation or increased staff costs, and should have proposed REDUCED expenditures for 2024 to account for their oversight (or mismanagement?). The Council is not in a good position to find $4M in “fluff” in the 2024 budget by December 31st (i.e., the proposed 2024 expenditures that can be reduced/eliminated in 2024 without affecting basic municipal operations and services that taxpayers expect). It is also clear from City staff’s budget presentations that they are unwilling to acknowledge or even help the Council find where to make the necessary cuts to resolve the budget crisis. Thus, the Council should just subtract $4M from the “Professional Services” funding and request the “new” Administration report back to Council in February on what contracts/consultants were affected by the cut. Professional services expenditures went from $20.7M in 2022, to $29.6M in 2023 to a proposed $33.7M in 2024 (a $4M INCREASE!!). This ‘across-the-board’ $4M cut is the only way the Council is going to fix the ‘turd’ they were handed (and gets message to City staff to stop unnecessary consultant costs).

    1. That is a shocking increase in spending I think this may be the way to go. And force the so called experts in their field to do their job.

  4. Mr. Scordino, this $4M reduction in professional services in the general fund in this budget cycle will work. It’s too bad there’s not a more useful set of suggestions from the Directors on what to cut, but that’s a separate issue about the financial mgmt processes in our fine city. In the private sector, it’s an oft used process for corporate finance staff to set the overall spending targets, the departments ask for more funding than their target, and corporate staff ‘plugs’ the budget with a negative dollar amount – the cut that needs to be made. THEN another cycle begins: the Depts make their case as to why they should not be given a prorata share of the plug, the senior leadership team evaluates the arguments, and new targets by department are created. Edmonds is in the first cycle now. They will have another cycle next spring, or whenever Dec YTD revenues and expenses are known, or whenever the Finance Director decides to give useable advice to Council. Game plan: 1) plug the budget now 2) reduce the scope of work on the VIA contract 3) ask questions about the ERP system implementation cost and time line 4) freeze head count 5) install the new Mayor. Council- Stop beating your head against the wall in a broken process.

  5. Since we have such a shortfall of funds in our city, and the council members are having a difficult time finding ways to reduce spending and make budget cuts, Why IN THE WORLD would any of the city council members even consider voting for a $37 million purchase of the Landmark 99 project. It seems we cannot afford what we have, let alone adding to our debt. Please explain how you can justify this? It seems to be incredibly irresponsible to me.

  6. I am continually amazed at the disconnect by some Council Members between our fiscal emergency and their desire to spend millions on the Landmark 99 project.

  7. Joe’s point is a good one and should be seriously considered. Just like Apollo 13 “Edmonds we have a problem” They had some real problems and so do we. It took a lot of creativity and duct tape to make it home. It will take some creative thinking and volunteer help to get Edmonds to the next budget cycle.

    Council is and will have major issues with finding the necessary cuts with a few dollars here and an few dollars there. By taking it from the Professional Services account it is all in one location. As 2024 moves along we will all begin to see how we can solve the 2024 budget issues and it may take some creative work on Council, Staff, Mayor, Boards, Comnissions, and Commitees (there are 17 with about 150 already serving), and the general public.

    We have enough duct tape, filters, and other tools to make this all work. And as Buzz Lightyear said “to 2025 (actually to infinity) and beyond.”

    The “Boys in the Boat” movie will be out by the end of the year. They did it, so can we! It is time to work together. Joe’s suggestion has great merit!!

  8. Thank you Joe for your take on this budget situation. I believe your proposal to take the $4million cut in Professional Services is the right approach. The Council has been handed a horrible budget situation and it makes sense to remove those funds and allow the new administration to make the specific cuts. Logic also demands dropping the Landmark 99 project before the city spends even more money that we don’t have.

  9. Joe Scordino,

    Thank you, Joe, for noting the 4 million dollar increase in professional consultation (2022, 2023, then proposed for 2024) and putting forward elimination of all consultation funds as the best way for Council to balance the 2024 budget. Thanks also to Theresa and Darrol for supporting this option.

    It was painful to listen to Councilmembers debate eliminating support to the Meadowdale preschool, and debate transferring the remaining $250,000 of ARPA funds meant for small businesses into the General Fund, motioned by CM Paine. And it was extremely frustrating when CM Paine suggested “revisiting the installation of red-light cameras and transferring $2 million from the city’s building maintenance fund to the general fund,” already rejected by Council.

    This is a reasonable, direct way to deal with removing 4 million dollars from the 2024 budget. Hopefully, Council will see the wisdom of this option you have proposed.

    1. I too was frustrated (and indeed disappointed and disturbed) that any council member wanted to revisit the red-light camera project. I lost track of the number of times that Chief Bennett explained that the reasoning behind this project was for public safety. Clearly, as some citizens suspected at the time, it is about revenue. If there is a desire to increase citizens’ cynicism and lack of trust in government, this speaking out of both sides of the mouth provides the perfect playbook.

  10. I think anyone on our council voting yes for the Landmark is maybe not thinking of all of Edmonds. I strongly suggest to CC members regardless of where they live Vote NO on December 5th. I am tired of hearing about it. I want people to be able to relax and not wonder if they can afford to live another year in Edmonds. There is much I could say in this post about trusting CC members I have decided not to do that today. Budget well obviously NO LANDMARK and then well it’s nice to try and save every salary and every person working for our city and maybe if they don’t buy Landmark we can. And maybe a few people will get sidewalks for their children and a few of the wants and needs the rest of the city would like to see.

  11. I would like to say Thank you to all of my fellow citizens of Edmonds for all of your work to explain to we who are frankly just not as informed or educated and without recourses all of it to try and understand the gravity of our situation in Edmonds. I read every comment sometimes several times and I do understand it the way you present it. I do feel so lucky to share this small city with you. All I know to say is from now on all of us must ask more questions and not allow anyone to try to pull the wool over our eyes. No more of this from any department in our city. We want answers now. The city is awake. No more oh this was passed and permitted one day and literally the next miraculously it was already built ha. No more wasting time and money on ideals and consultants and more staff for things that were just a pipe dream. I knew things were fishy and I feel a bit like during our pandemic while all were scared and looking for food for gods sakes these people were working away on their ideals and wants with no care or consideration or information to our council or citizens on what the hell they were doing. Enough.

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