By Chris Winters Herald Writer
EVERETT — A consultant will soon be hired to conduct an in-depth evaluation of the Everett Fire Department and recommend ways to save money.
Mayor Ray Stephanson is promoting the move in tandem with a package of budget cuts and tax and fee hikes as part of an overall budget-balancing package, which seeks to balance a $13 million deficit in 2015.
With no changes, the city will have a $13 million deficit in 2013, and it is projected to grow to $21 million by 2018.
The City Council is scheduled to vote Wednesday on a set of ordinances that will raise $6.5 million in new taxes and fees.
At the same time, Stephanson’s administration has identified $3 million in cuts within the city, such as eliminating the library outreach program, and suggests using $3.7 million in unspent funds from 2013, to bring 2015 into balance.
The longer term, however, requires identifying more areas in which the city can save. One proposal would require the city’s unionized staff to pay for 10 percent of their medical insurance.
Stephanson plans to hire consultants to review fire, police and transit services to come up with a plan to cut costs, and which would inform future contract negotiations with the city’s unions.
“I anticipate that right after we’re done with this work we’ll roll right into police and transit,” Stephanson told the council Wednesday.
The six members of the council present unanimously passed the resolution to seek a consultant for the review, but not without some expressing reservations about the process.
Councilman Paul Roberts, in particular, highlighted what he said was a lack of detail in the city’s Request for Qualifications, with which it will develop a pool of consultants who could potentially do the work.
The document doesn’t identify the scope of work to be done, a definite timeline for each phase, or available funding.
Data comparing Everett to other jurisdictions wouldn’t be available until a later phase of the evaluation.
“Shouldn’t that be in phase one, so we can see comparatives and then go forward? It seems backward,” Roberts said.
Deputy Mayor Debra Bryant acknowledged the lack of details and said the scope of work would be negotiated with contractors, and that a timeline would follow from that.
“We truly are walking into this not knowing who the providers will be,” Bryant said.
She assured the council that any contract would have to come back for council authorization before Stephanson could sign it.
Roberts on Thursday said he reluctantly supported the measure, but added that he thought that all city departments, not just fire, police and transit, should be examined simultaneously, not just one at a time.
“If we have a structural deficit, we should be looking at the structure,” Roberts said.
“I don’t agree that it’s the best process, but it’s what we’re doing,” he added.
The various tax and fee hikes have been drawing criticism in the community.
On Wednesday, Shean Nasin, owner of ReFresh Boutique on Wetmore Avenue, told the council that 15 businesses in a two-block radius of his shop have closed in the past three years.
Nasin pointed out that the city has prioritized retaining businesses, but said that more tax and fee increases would have the opposite impact.
Megan Dunn told the council that the majority of cuts would affect Everett’s residents and businesses, and that the steps the city was taking would not do anything to address the root causes of the deficits.
“We need structural solutions, not a Band-Aid,” she said. “Let’s find out why businesses are leaving.”
Chris Winters: 425-374-4165 or firstname.lastname@example.org.