Everett’s once-endearing lack of civic imagination has morphed into a long-term liability. The top-down budget process brings into focus a get-along, go-along political culture that for years has poorly served the people of Snohomish County’s largest city.
Although we hate to reveal the ending, the city council will accept the mayor’s recommendations and soon pass a budget that includes hiking the utility tax from 4.5 percent to 6 percent, a higher business-license fee, and formation of a transportation benefit district with a $20 car-tab fee (any steeper for a tab fee and it would go to the voters). Service cuts, such as eliminating the library’s outreach program, are relatively modest. Emotion-laden options, including closing the Forest Park swim center, were floated in a manner that recalls the famous 1973 National Lampoon cover: If you don’t buy this magazine, we’ll kill this dog. (Everett will remain an aquatic-friendly destination).
As Mayor Ray Stephanson notes, the city faces a structural deficit, with expenses growing at 4.1 percent and revenues at just 2.3 percent a year. Sales-tax revenue remains anemic, especially as retailers bypass Everett for Lynnwood, Marysville and Arlington. The council, if it still had a budget committee (hint), might review the reason so many businesses treat Everett like Kryptonite.
A structural problem demands a structural response. That is absent in the 2015 budget, kicked to “phase two” of the mayor’s agenda, an in-depth review of the city’s largest departments. But phase two should be phase one, identifying and wringing out every possible efficiency before racing to taxpayers.
Everett’s $12.6 million general-fund deficit, gingerly unacknowledged during the 2013 election, isn’t news to members of the city council. As the city’s legislative body, the council has acted like a bystander, submitting to a staff-driven “structural deficit advisory team” process that allows the mayor to define the debate. City staffers have done a stellar, professional job. But too many council members forget they’re part of a deliberative body, strong-mayor system or no. All the while, conscientious council members such as Paul Roberts and Brenda Stonecipher risk getting marginalized for asking tough questions.
Tonight’s council meeting is the first step in reversing its traditional lap-dog role. City operations and departments need to be evaluated relative to other jurisdictions, embracing best practices and efficiencies before asking a disproportionately poor Everett population to pony up.
Budget push back is a public service, if not a mandate. To paraphrase a biblical adage, you can love the budgeter, but hate the budget.