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Everett looking at budget cuts that impact everyday services
EVERETT - City leaders face hard choices to sew up Everett’s perennial and growing budget gap, and they want the public’s help to make the right calls.
Closing the Forest Park Swim Center, eliminating the library bookmobile, shuttering Walter E. Hall Golf Course and levying utility taxes for garbage and cable TV service are some of the city’s biggest-ticket options to ratchet down a $13 million gap in 2015.
Implementing a car tab fee, asking voters for essentially a parks tax to pay for parks and creating a $3 a month membership fee to the Carl Gipson Senior Center are some other items on a list of potential austerity measures presented last week.
The full list of possibilities is on the city’s website at this link (opens in new window).
What’s on the list today probably will change over time, Mayor Ray Stephanson said.
The City Council will be spending all this month evaluating the options for raising revenue and cutting services. The April 9 meeting focuses on service cuts and the April 16 meeting focuses on revenue building.
The public is being asked to come to two meetings in May.
Structural deficit trouble
The menu of budget choices presented to the council last week seemed to offer few appetizing options to council members, but calls to right the budget deficit began mounting years ago.
The city’s budget deficit is $13 million for 2015, but it could grow to $19 million in 2018.
The city filled the hole each year by deferring law enforcement pension fund contributions, holding off some expenses and pressing managers to save money.
Stephanson made clear in a urgent statement last month this unsustainable budget method has to stop.
Less revenue from a voter-approved limit on increasing property tax rates and higher labor costs are driving forces impacting the budget.
“This is the new normal,” Stephanson said.
 
Why items made the list
The city has some rationale behind its options.
The 40-year-old Forest Park Swim Center is due for a renovation by 2020 that would cost $40 million the city doesn’t have. Closing the pool would save $410,000 a year in mostly labor costs.
The budget menu proposes increasing planning and business license fees that haven’t been modified in 20 years. Combined, those options could generate about $550,000.
A $3 per month membership fee at the senior center could generate one-fifth of the center’s operating costs.
Taxes on cable and garbage service, currently untaxed in the city, would raise $5.8 million. The proposed rate could be 6 percent on these services.
A separate idea could raise Everett Transit’s bus fare from $1 per trip for riders to $2 per trip. The transit agency operates independently of the city’s main budget.
Another suggestion proposes to ask voters to hand over the independent Everett library system to the regional Sno-Isle Libraries system. That idea, and many others, would require further study.
Walter E. Hall Golf Course has a unique situation as the city could sell part or all of it, or convert it into an “executive” or shortened golf course, city parks director Paul Kaftanski said. 
The golf course could be sacrificed to fix a $7 million debt created when the city improved American Legion Park Golf Course in the 1990s.
Both courses are evenly popular with about 60,000 rounds played annually at each course, according to city figures. American Legion’s course makes a profit, though, while Walter E. Hall runs at a loss.
 
Council reactions
A few ideas perked up council members’ ears.
The idea of a metropolitan parks district, which creates a voter-approved separate tax designated for parks funding, intrigued council members. Seattle and Snohomish are going through processes to create parks districts.
Creating a district like this would pull some of the parks department’s cost off the city’s general budget.
Councilwoman Brenda Stonecipher said some of the ideas are quite regressive.
Some of the options are “service cuts we’re looking at (that are reasons) people want to live in this community,” Stonecipher said.
Raising bus fares would further hurt low-income riders, she said. Everett Transit’s fares are low for a reason, she said.
Councilman Scott Murphy said he wanted data on how many people use services such as the senior center before he could consider these options.
One idea that got support would force traffic fine scofflaws to pay up before the city releases their car from impound. This mandate would raise $50,000 in potentially unpaid fines.
Another idea raises Everett’s reportedly low parking fines to match other cities, and that would generate an estimated $250,000.
There are “no sacred cows” in fixing the budget, Kaftanski, the point person for the budget recommendations, told the council in December.
Even so, the city has generally run lean on its budget.
Councilman Rich Anderson, an accountant who independently pored through the city’s budget for years for a non-city affiliated advisory group, said there’s no pork in the budget.
Tim Eyman’s Initiative 747, which limited cities from raising property taxes beyond 1 percent each year, is one impact the city budget is affected.
Outside impacts such as this mean “there’s no choice but to look at expenditures and revenue,” Anderson said.
“We’re not going to solve it all in one year,” he added.
Stephanson is taking a hands-off approach to molding the budget cuts as public and staff input rolls in, city spokeswoman Meghan Pembroke said. He’ll create his own set of budget recommendations after the public and council chews over the list.
 Layoffs a last resort
The city survived the Great Recession without laying any employees off. Layoffs are a last resort, Stephanson said.
The budget deficit menu, though, does suggest $4 million in labor reductions, equal to 50 employees.
The city has pruned 25 vacated positions off its books in the past six years, Pembroke said.
Labor represents about 70 percent of the city budget.
There were calls from council members to cut back on hiring pricey consultants for projects. Less employees means the city is hiring more consultants to make up the difference, Stonecipher said.
City chief financial officer Debra Bryant acknowledged this. For example, the public works department opened up filling three positions to help stem the need for consultants, Bryant said.
Another city goal is requiring rank-and-file employees pay a 10 percent co-pay for medical expenses. Right now most of these employees pay nothing, but it’s bound into their union contracts.
The measure could save the city $900,000.
“It’s on the top of our list in negotiations,” Bryant said.
 
Tell the city
The city’s two public input meetings on the budget are scheduled from 5:30 to 8 p.m. Tuesday, May 8 at Evergreen Middle School, 7621 Beverly Lane, and from 5:30 to 8 p.m. Sunday, May 13 at Everett Community College’s Jackson Conference Center, 2000 Tower St.
The city also has a feedback form at the main budget page at http://www.ci.everett.wa.us/default.aspx?ID=2177 .
The council traditionally meets at 6:30 p.m. Wednesdays at the Council Chambers inside the Police Department headquarters, 3002 Wetmore Ave.
People who have any questions or feedback on the budget process can reach the Mayor’s Office by writing email to
apogson@everettwa.gov or by calling 425-257-7115.

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