Everett mayor proposes taxes, cuts to fix budget gap

EVERETT — Mayor Ray Stephanson is pushing a combination of higher utility taxes, staffing cuts and a new $20 car-tab fee to help balance city budgets in years to come.

The mayor’s recommendations are up for discussion at tonight’s City Council meeting.

The suggested cuts are the product of months of staff research and were the subject of a series of public meetings this spring.

“People aren’t jumping up and down and saying, ‘Tax me more,’” Stephanson said Tuesday.

He said that people appear supportive of the notion that, “‘If I need to pay a little more to maintain our quality of life, that’s OK.’”

The shortfall owes to the city’s annual revenue growth rate of 2.3 percent being outstripped by 4.1 percent annual growth in expenses.

The city unveiled the mayor’s recommendations over the weekend.

They include $3 million worth of proposed cuts and $6.5 million in new taxes and fees.

Combined, they would bridge more than $9 million of the $13 million shortfall Stephanson’s administration has forecast for the 2015 budget.

The city also has $3.7 million for one-time use to help cover the shortfall in 2015 because it spent less than anticipated in 2013.

It’s up to the City Council to decide whether to sign off on the changes.

Councilwoman Brenda Stonecipher said she’s unhappy with the process Stephanson’s administration has used. In her opinion, it’s been too hasty and has failed to gauge the additional tax burden people in Everett are being asked to bear. She’d like to see more studies, perhaps taking the process into next year.

“We’re supposed to rubber stamp these tax and fee increases and move on,” Stonecipher said. “We just need more information. It’s just being rushed too much.”

Some of her colleagues disagree.

“I came up with my own list” of recommendations, Councilman Rich Anderson said. “I had a little different twist on some of them, but by and large, I agree with the direction (the mayor’s administration) is heading with them.”

The largest share of new revenue in Stephanson’s proposal would come from raising taxes on electricity, telephone service and natural gas to 6 percent from the current 4.5 percent.

The administration also wants to impose a new utility tax on cable and garbage service, phased in at a rate of 2 percent per year.

Together, the utility taxes would add an estimated $4 million to city coffers every year.

A $20 fee tacked onto annual car-registration renewals could generate another $1.5 million per year toward transportation improvements. So long as the new fee is not more than $20, it would not require voter approval.

The city could drum up $465,000 by imposing an annual renewal fee to business licenses and raising the initial fee to $75 from $10 now.

The mayor’s proposed budget cuts come on top of 25 positions the city has already eliminated during the past six years.

The ideas under discussion are only step one in a process that could continue for some time.

Councilman Scott Murphy generally agrees with the proposals he’s seen but will be on the lookout to make sure tax increases are more or less even with budget cuts.

“I’m very supportive of a balanced approach to this,” Murphy said. “I don’t think you can tax your way out of a structural deficit.”

Among the cuts being proposed, the largest would cut 15 employees, saving $1.2 million. The administration hasn’t identified who they would be or whether the cuts would come from the ranks of positions currently being held vacant, or might involve layoffs.

Separately, cutting the Everett Public Library’s outreach program, including its bookmobile, could save an estimated $213,000 per year.

Delaying pension payments to a firefighter and police pension fund known as LEOFF 1 could save the city about $965,000 per year. The proposal is to extend payments out through 2040, rather than paying off obligations in 2030.

Stephanson said the city remains well ahead of Washington state’s 2060 deadline to pay off obligations to the pension program, even after extending the timeline.

Some council members may not agree with that approach.

“It seems like funding those sooner rather than later would be preferable to stretching them out further,” Murphy said.

In other proposed cuts, Stephanson has suggested increasing the use of electronic home detention over short-term jail stays could save $300,000 per year.

The mayor wants to take a closer look at fire, police and transit functions in the city for longer-term savings. Public safety accounts for more than half of the city budget.

The city is preparing to hire consultants to take a close look at the city fire department, which accounts for about $19 million of the city’s $113 million annual budget. The city’s budget for fire and emergency medical services includes 186 budgeted positions.

Areas up for review could include the 24-hour shifts that firefighters work, compared to 12-hour shifts in some other departments. The consultant also could look at the shift in Everett and other departments to more aid calls compared with battling structure fires.

Many of the changes, within the fire department or other parts of city government, would have to be negotiated with unions.

About 80 percent of the city workforce is in a labor union, including all but nine of the city’s fire department employees.

Unionized city workers pay nothing toward healthcare premiums. Stephanson would like to have them contribute 10 percent, something the city’s elected officials and unrepresented employees have been doing for nearly two years.

Partly due to public outcry, Stephanson’s administration has abandoned proposals to downsize the Walter E. Hall Golf Course, close the Forest Park Swim Center or discontinue Forest Park Animal Farm.

The city could still pursue a new property tax to pay for park improvements if council members are interested.

Noah Haglund: 425-339-3465, nhaglund@heraldnet.com.

Learn more about plans to reshape Everett city government

When: tonight at 6:30 p.m.

Where: council chambers, 2930 Wetmore Ave.

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