From preschool to professional services, council starts making tough 2024 budget choices

Councilmembers returned to council chambers for yet another budget discussion Monday night.

From reducing funds for department supplies and travel to agreeing to end the popular Meadowdale Preschool program after this school year, the Edmonds City Council Monday night continued the difficult work of reducing expenses to ensure a sustainable 2024 budget.

So far the council and public have not seen a spreadsheet in council chambers that tracks the impact of the various budget cuts. (Council President Neil Tibbott said he hopes that will be ready soon). But the mission of Monday night’s special meeting was clear: “We’re looking at ways that we can reduce costs in different areas,” Tibbot said. Various councilmembers have scoured the budget, “looking for opportunities to reduce spending in particular areas,” he added.

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. On Nov. 21, the council heard that the city’s estimated ending fund balance for 2023 is $3 million — $3.6 million lower than projected when the budget was prepared in late summer.

In response, the council for weeks has been reviewing how to reduce expenses while maintaining essential city programs and protecting existing staff. Budget cuts passed Monday follow actions approved Thursday; more detailed budget amendments are expected during Tuesday’s regular council meeting.

For the most part, councilmembers proposed their cuts without first receiving input from city staff. In an interview after Monday’s meeting, Council President Pro Tem Vivian Olson said that she and Council President Neil Tibbott did suggest a meeting with department directors to talk about their ideas for budget reductions. However, staff didn’t feel comfortable with the plan because it didn’t comply with directions from Mayor Mike Nelson, who had ordered staff not to help the council, Olson said.

“We have asked questions about those budget areas and did not receive answers,” Tibbott said during the meeting Monday. “We are simply making reductions at a fairly low level at this time and again, we can revisit with budget amendments later this year (in 2024).”

Department directors did show up in person or via Zoom Monday to offer their input in response to various council proposals. As a result, some suggestions were withdrawn after councilmembers heard about the possible impacts of their amendments.

Among the items considered Monday night:

– The council agreed to keep a staff proposal — made as part of the draft 2024 budget — to eliminate the popular Meadowdale Preschool program at the end of the 2023-24 school year. The proposal had generated significant public outcry but during a meeting last week councilmembers learned that 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.

Tibbott first proposed an amendment to reduce by 50% the money allocated to the preschool for 2024, but soon learned that such proposal wouldn’t be workable give the program’s staffing requirements. Parks Director Angie Feser explained that the original staff proposal would allow all existing Meadowdale Preschool students to complete their school year, after which they would move on to kindergarten. In addition, she noted that there are preschool options through the school district that could accommodate parents looking for a program.

Councilmember Susan Paine said she preferred to eliminate the program at the end of the 2023-24 school year, as staff had recommended. Councilmember Olson — noting the preschool’s “stellar reputation” — said she hoped that the city could find a way to bring it back as a “revenue neutral” program in the future.

– The council considered two requests from Paine to cut $25,000 donations the city is making to two nonprofit organizations — the Edmonds Center for the Arts (ECA) and the Edmonds Senior Center/Waterfront Center. Councilmember Will Chen spoke against both cuts. “The ECA is the soul and spirit of this town,” Chen said, and given that 20% of Edmonds’ population is seniors, the seniorcenter has “done tremendous service for our city,” he added.

Olson said she didn’t want to vote on the matter without first speaking with representatives from both organizations. Both Olson and Buckshnis said they didn’t see the logic in reducing funding to the senior center when it had recently announced that it would be partnering with the Lake Ballinger Center in Mountlake Terrace to serve seniors in an area of considerable focus for councilmembers lately: the Highway 99 corridor.

Paine countered that while she recognized both organizations were valuable, she more concerned about protecting staff jobs than donating to nonprofits that could receive money from other sources, such as grants.

In the end, the vote to remove ECA funding was 4-3, with Councilmembers Chris Eck, Jenna Nand, Paine and Tibbott voting yes. The vote on senior center funding failed 3-4, with Buckshnis, Eck, Olson and Chen opposed.

Administrative Services Director Dave Turley answers a question Monday.

– Several votes focused on reducing city department budgets by various amounts. As proposed by Olson, they included cutting departmental supply budgets by $53,940, reducing travel by $22,833 and slashing training by $94,382.

Councilmember Eck asked if the cuts would impact the Edmonds Police Department’s required training. “We were rather limited in access to being able to ask questions and work with the directors on these and it was a little bit of a stab in the dark,” Olson replied. “We are aware that we will be able to revisit in the new year and tweak.”

In the end, the cuts proposed in those areas were approved.

Olson also proposed reducing the departmental services budgets for professional services, with a 90% cut in human resources and a 50% reduction for most of the other departments.

After further discussion with Human Resources Director Jessica Neill Hoyson about how she uses her department’s professional services funds — mostly for investigations or mediations with no way of knowing when those will be needed — the council agreed to reduce the HR reduction from 90% to 50%. Councilmembers also removed the parks department from the proposal altogether after learning that the department’s professional services budget is how it pays its contracted instructors, who in turn provide recreation programs that the city receives revenue from.

– The council approved a proposal from Paine — who said she consulted with the police department — to reduce by $375,000 the amount the city budgets for prisoner care, which covers jail costs, housing, booking, courtroom video and medical.

– A proposal was approved to reduce departmental communications budgets by 33% — for a total of $14,000. That idea was opposed by Paine, who said that the city needed the funding to communicate with residents, including ensuring that materials were translated into various languages. Olson replied that the budget for translations — even when reduced — is still greater than it has been in past years.

– The council also agreed to remove $5,000 from services at Edmonds’ Neighborhood City Hall, after hearing from Community Services and Economic Development Director Todd Tatum that it would have “a negligible impact” on the program’s budget.

– And it eliminated a $50,000 request from the police department for computer accessories and replacement of broken furniture.

In addition, the council had a lengthy discussion about a budget proposal to cover $280,000 in credit card merchant fees the city is absorbing as an increasing number of utility customers use a debit or credit card to pay their utility bill or purchase permits and licenses. The council agreed to wait on that budget request until mid-year, after the city completes its review of options available to address that expense.

At the end of the meeting, Councilmember Nand also proposed fund transfers from the city’s maintenance fund into the general fund. However, some councilmembers asked for an accounting of those expenses and the hope is that the information will be available at Tuesday’s meeting for further discussion prior to any decision.

Tuesday’s council meeting will begin at 7 p.m. Learn more here.

— By Teresa Wippel

  1. If it is true that “former” Edmonds Mayor ordered the staff “not to talk with the Edmonds City Council”, then we surely did the right thing in Edmonds in firing him thru the electoral process. You cannot run and effective city government with a Mayor who obstructs, and is disconnected
    with our citizens.

  2. How ridiculous that staff can’t participate in these critical budget discussions based on “orders” from Mike Nelson. Good riddance. Edmonds politicians can finally act like grown ups when Mike Rosen starts soon.

  3. The article states council was unable to consult with city staff due to “directions from Mayor Mike Nelson, who had ordered staff not to help the council”. Why would Mayor Nelson give that direction? It seems these difficult decisions would benefit from staff input so council members can understand the full impacts on our city. Is there a procedural reason to limit collaboration between staff and Council members?

    1. Corrine- there’s no procedural reason. it’s just the mayor fighting with the council, and using the directors as a tool in that fight. Earlier this year he told the directors to not reply to city council’s emails or calls, for a period of time. It’s a crappy way to run a little city, but at least the guy’s consistent and predictable.

    2. When our CC consisted of a majority of Mayor Nelsons pals, he was happy as a clam. I watched that CC in action, and it was always a vote for those 4. There was never a time when they compromised on anything. Then obviously the city wasn’t happy with that CC so we voted in a new council for the most part. This CC has since put in place been more reasonable. Now however we are seeing this them or us battle again. I hate seeing this and I hope it doesn’t continue. Susan Paine if nothing else is consistent in her ideals and we all know that about Susan. She won by a large margin which shows that all of Edmonds probably finds her to be pretty kind regardless of her personal views. Now Ms. Eck we don’t know yet and I hope she moved to Edmonds to love and care about all of Edmonds and won’t be swayed. Ms. Nand well she ran unopposed. Which way she rolls it seems depends on the issue. That is ok. Will was voted in. Now Will Chen is a nice guy when he came to my porch and into my home (invited) he told me he was a moderate. I do think Will Chen has a great mind, accountant. He knows Landmark is not financially feasible.

  4. The Council is making difficult decisions on where money can be cut from the budget, yet some of them are ready to give away $100,000 this month for a pie in the sky project(aka Landmark 99) which will cost us $500,000 more in September 24, followed by $37 million +? millions in the near future. Those who vote for the project at this point will say that we can back out with no further cost before September 24, but that is not their intent. This is madness.

    1. Well Lisa sorry to say it but don’t expect much acting like grown ups from “our” politician’s or City Official’s. Mike Nelson NOT in his boat alone. None of our mess happened overnight, the hole was carefully dug overtime without use of brains. Which appears to STILL be a factor.

  5. Wow! I am really glad that Mike Nelson will no longer be Mayor of Edmonds come January. Someone that vindictive with such a fragile ego has no business in politics. When I was laid off from the Snohomish County Council staff during the Great Recession, I showed up to work every day until my last day. I did my work as well as I did before the notice of my lay off. I know losing your job hurts, but Mike Nelson’s actions have not only uncovered his selfish and egotistical nature, they may hurt the City going forward. There is a critical budget problem and that calls for being bigger than your ego to serve the city you said you love. I can’t wait for Mike Rosen to take the reins!!

  6. How many more budget cuts and reductions to services be required if we commit the $100,000 to the Landmark 99 project? How much beyond $100,000 will be required for consultants and staff time to work on this project? If staff and council think they have the money and bandwidth to take on this new project, then maybe those are the departments that should be the focus of the next areas for further cuts. Sounds like planning a major remodel on your house and buying new furniture at the same time you are cutting spending on essential budget items.

    1. Maryellen,

      That’s an interesting idea.

      Planning and Development Director Susan McLaughlin submitted a “New Decision Package” last Thursday, 11-30-23, which included:
      Comp Plan update  $649,000
      Code Modernization, Unified Development Code $160,000
      Code Modernization, CAP legislation $25,000
      Total: $834,000

      Last night, Council denied this entire Professional Services request. CM Buckshnis noted that this still leaves $500,000 for Professional Services for Director McLaughlin’s use in the 2024 budget.

  7. In all of the discussion about the current fiscal crisis facing the city of Edmonds, there are a couple of things that have gone largely unnoticed, but I have recently brought these to the attention of some members of council after making public records requests to learn more about them. First of all, when comparing the 2023 adopted budget to the 2024 proposed budget, The beginning fund balance and ending fund balance for the year 2021 were restated downwards to the tune of $1.8 million. Secondly, revenues in the amount of $3.9 million projected for 2022 under the category of Interfund Service Charges when the 2023 budget was adopted were reduced to zero in the actuals reported for 2022 in the proposed budget for 2024. Taken together, these changes impact the projected beginning and ending balances for 2023 by $5.7 million which certainly helped to precipitate this fiscal crisis.

    1. In the September financial report received by Council last month, a further $3.6 million reduction in the projected ending balance of the general fund was reported. It is not clear what drove this further degradation in our finances but the public records request response that I received on the Interfund Service Charge question indicated that a journal entry for 2023 had been made in this area also and the amount of revenue projected in that area. If, as I suspect, this reflects an ongoing issue with the way that these Interfund Service Charge revenues are being accounted for then the proposed 2024 budget which also includes projected revenues of $4 million in this category is in even more trouble than we currently acknowledge.

    2. Niall, i can’t resist commenting on your use of the term ‘precipitate’. are you the mayor’s brother-in-law or something? That sarcasm is only exceeded by my frustration at the lack of timely reporting of financial position from the City. It’s Dec 5th, and we don’t have anything more recent than a Sept report of budget vs actuals, and cash flow

    3. In the September financial report received by Council last month, a further $3.6 million reduction in the projected ending balance of the general fund was reported. It is not clear what drove this further degradation in our finances but the public records request response that I received on the Interfund Service Charge question indicated that a journal entry for 2023 had been made in this area also and the amount of revenue projected in that area for 2023 was $3.4 million. If this is indicative of an ongoing systemic issue with the way these revenues have been accounted for in the past then the 2024 budget which also assumes $4 million in revenue under Interfund service charges is more deeply in trouble that the current data would suggest.

  8. I suspect Mayor Nelson is protecting City staff from council. If you watch any council meetings, you’ll regularly see some CMs personally attack city employees and constantly question expertise. I wouldn’t subject people I manage to that either. Some of the CMs are downright insufferable and honestly don’t know what they’re talking about most of the time. It’s the Dunning Kruger Council.
    The council was given the budget and it’s their job to decide what they deem is important and then face consequences. They act like they know what’s best and that we’re in this massive crisis – I guess they can figure out what’s unimportant and we as voters can judge them on their priorities next time around. I seriously doubt most really care what staff has to say anyhow.

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