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 As a result, some suggestions were withdrawn after councilmembers heard about the possible impacts of their amendments.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.
– 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