Way late and dollars short

Here’s a budgetary thought for the city of Everett: Don’t wait ‘til it’s raining to patch the roof.

During the depths of the recession, taxpayers were assured the city was carefully managing its finances. Some maintenance projects and pension contributions were being delayed, and 25 jobs were trimmed (but public safety staffing was preserved). Citizens were not socked with any painful increases in fees or taxes.

Now, just as many localities are regaining their fiscal legs, Mayor Ray Stephanson warns that Everett’s budget model is unsustainable. Projected costs are increasing nearly twice as fast as revenues, and big projects like the Broadway bridge replacement are in the works.

To address this situation — not a “crisis in any shape or form,” the mayor assures us — city department heads have brainstormed for several months to compile 470 budget-balancing ideas, some of which will be shared at City Council’s meeting on Wednesday. After some public workshops, Stephanson and his department heads expect to make final recommendations in June.

We can look at this situation — not a “crisis,” remember — and generously praise the city for being proactive by brainstorming ideas a year in advance of the 2015 budget, which will need to erase a $12 million shortfall.

Solutions under consideration include: forming a transportation benefit district so the city can charge $20 car-tab fees, increasing the city utility tax, raising the business license fee, and taxing garbage pickup and cable service.

After all, the mayor told the council, “across the board, our fees and rates are artificially low. In fact, many of them haven’t been adjusted for decades.”

Are these good ideas or bad ideas? Different people will have different opinions.

But a not-so-generous observation is that they all should have been considered over the past several years while our careful city administration was timidly digging Everett into its impending fiscal hole.

Stephanson and his staff should not feel too proud about not adjusting city fees for decades. They should not be too smug about eschewing taxes on garbage pickup or cable while most other Northwest cities were collecting revenue from these sources.

A rational schedule of modest fee increases makes the cost-of-living predictable for a city’s residents and businesses. It is unsettling to find ourselves in a situation — not a “crisis,” mind you — that impels city hall to attack our pocketbooks in multiple ways all at once.

Let’s wish the mayor and council well at those upcoming public workshops.

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