Everett’s first budget proposals just the start of work

EVERETT — Shutting the Forest Park Swim Center. Eliminating summer lifeguards at Silver Lake. Closing the Forest Park animal farm.

Those are just some of the budget-cutting measures to ponder this spring, as Everett leaders attempt to balance city expenses and revenues in the years ahead. While the small sample touches the parks system, other proposals would change or cut back library, bus service and public safety.

As city leaders look to trim expenses, they’re also eyeing new property and utility taxes.

Mayor Ray Stephanson’s administration gave the first overview of the proposals during Wednesday’s City Council meeting.

“I don’t think for a minute that this is going to be the final list,” Stephanson said. “It’s really driven by the feedback that we get from the community.”

People will have the chance to comment during a half dozen meetings scheduled between now and the end of May. Stephanson hopes to make final decisions in June. Restructuring police, fire and transit services will take more time, with input from consultants.

The root of the problem is that the cost of providing city services has been growing nearly twice as fast as the revenue the city is collecting. Financial models from Stephanson’s administration predict annual revenue growth of 2.3 percent per year compared to 4.1 percent per year for expenses.

Without changing the way the city does business, administrators predict a $13 million budget deficit in 2015. That would widen to an estimated $21 million by 2018.

Everett’s 2014 budget is $113.2 million. The city employs nearly 1,200.

In December, Stephanson appointed city parks director Paul Kaftanski to lead a group of top-level city staff to come up with ways to realign the budget.

During Wednesday’s council meeting, Kaftanski touched on the most realistic ideas that came up during the months of brainstorming.

Some changes on the table strike not just at the city’s balance sheet, but at its very identity. Some examples:

There’s the possibility of merging Everett Transit and the Everett Library with their regional counterparts — Community Transit and Sno-Isle Libraries. Maintaining these civic institutions has long been a point of pride for the city.

Bus fares also could go up from the current $1 for adult passengers.

To raise money for parks, Everett could ask voters to approve a taxing district dedicated to maintaining city parks. Seattle Mayor Ed Murray has endorsed a similar idea for his city.

Everett could reduce the Jetty Island ferry crossings to five days a week, rather than seven, during summer.

The Everett Library System may need to consider discontinuing its mobile outreach programs, which take books to the elderly and disabled.

The city could charge more for business licenses. Instead of the current $10 license fee which never expires, Stephanson has suggested an initial fee in the range of $50 to $100, with an annual renewal of $50.

The City Council could impose a $20 fee on car tabs to pay for road improvements by forming a transportation benefit district. That’s a route that Lynnwood, Edmonds and other local cities have taken.

Police may need to have civilian employees carry out some tasks currently performed by higher-paid commissioned officers.

The city could send sentenced inmates to jails outside the Puget Sound, where daily rates are cheaper. The city also could raise the requirements for who qualifies to be represented by a public defender.

Stephanson said he’ll wait to hear more from his constituents and the City Council before taking a stance on most of the proposals.

“I am keeping a very open mind in terms of making any value judgments about this proposal,” he said. Some proposals would needed to be hammered out with the cooperation of public-sector unions. While appointed and elected city employees pay 10 percent of their health care costs, unionized city employees pay nothing. Getting them to pay the same 10 percent would save an estimated $900,000 annually to help cope with rising health care costs.

Stephanson said the city has been able to get by financially with one-time cuts since the recession hit six years ago. He believes it was prudent to wait until now for more drastic measures.

“Frankly, it was not the time, when people (and businesses) were hurting,” he said.

Several factors have constrained how much revenue Everett has been able to bring in: a 1 percent limit on property tax growth that’s been in place since 2002; a relative lack of big construction projects in the city; and retailers opting to set up shop outside the city, in places such Alderwood mall in Lynnwood and Seattle Premium Outlets in Tulalip.

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

Budget talks

City leaders plan to discuss budget options further during upcoming City Council meetings. All begin at 6:30 p.m. in council chambers, 3002 Wetmore Ave.:

April 9: cutting expenses

April 16: increasing revenues

April 30: further studies

May 21: summary

The city plans to host two additional meetings at other locations in May:

May 8: 5:30 to 8 p.m. at Evergreen Middle School cafeteria, 7621 Beverly Lane.

May 13: 5:30 to 8 p.m. at the Wilderness Auditorium, Jackson Conference Center, Everett Community College, 2000 Tower St.

Find more information at www.everettwa.org.

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