Outside of Everett City Hall and the Everett Police Department on Wednesday, Jan. 3, 2024 in Everett, Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

Outside of Everett City Hall and the Everett Police Department on Wednesday, Jan. 3, 2024 in Everett, Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

Amid deficit, Everett eyes joining fire authority, Sno-Isle libraries

The council is looking to save cash. As a solution, the city could have its library system annexed into Sno-Isle.

EVERETT — The city is looking under couch cushions for extra cash to solve a projected $12.9 million deficit for the 2025 budget.

Under current budget projections, that deficit could grow to $35.9 million by the end of 2030.

In a meeting Wednesday, the Everett City Council weighed ways to cut costs and increase revenue.

Three main options were presented to the council. They included:

• Merging the city library with Sno-Isle’s regional system;

• Merging the city fire department with a regional fire authority; and

• Raising tax revenue through a general levy lid lift.

Mayor Cassie Franklin, however, said the city’s main priority is to strengthen the fire department and the library, not do away with them.

“The three revenue options that our finance team will be discussing are in no way because we are trying to divest ourselves of these services,” she told the council Wednesday. “These are essential services. The city is not trying to get rid of our fire department or say we don’t need it, or get rid of our library and say we don’t need it. These are services that we desperately want to protect and grow as our city grows.”

The council did not set a timeline to finalize budget solutions.

Levy propositions for the primary election must be finalized by May and August for the November election.

Here’s a look at each option:

Library annexation

Sno-Isle Libraries operates 23 other libraries in Snohomish and Island counties. But not in Everett, where the city funds its own library system.

Merging with Sno-Isle would cost the average property owner an extra $171 in taxes each year, while reducing the city’s deficit by $6.5 million in 2025, according to city finance staff.

And under Sno-Isle ownership, library funding could increase by $1.9 million in 2025, according to city estimates.

At Wednesday’s meeting, Amy Hieb, who moved to Everett in 2017, expressed concern over a potential annexation of the Everett library.

“What does this say about the soul of our city if we have endless money for police, but divest ourselves of our public library system?” Hieb said. “How many programs directly benefiting residents are we willing to cut so we can siphon a greater share of the city’s operating revenue to police?”

The 2024 budget contains $50.8 million for the police, up 18.6% from last year. The budget included $6.4 million for libraries.

Michael Rainey, the director of the union representing Everett library employees, said some employees are apprehensive about what a merger with the county would look like.

There haven’t been any talks about how their benefits and working conditions will change if this happens.

“Our goal is to have happy and productive union members who are happy and productive employees who provide better service for the public,” Rainey said.

Fire department annexation

Joining a regional fire authority, such as South County Fire, could enhance fire services, city Finance Director and Treasurer Susy Haugen said.

South County Fire is funded, in part, by a fire benefit charge determined by property size and fire risk. This puts more of the funding burden onto bigger, at-risk buildings, and less on the average property owner.

Overall, such a move could reduce Everett’s deficit by up to $32 million, depending on what fire levy rate the city chooses.

General levy lid lift

If the council decides to go this direction, voters can chose between a temporary or a permanent lift.

A levy lid lift gives the city the option to raise taxes on residents by larger increments. The levy is currently set at 1%.

How much the levy is lifted is up to voters, who can also decide to return it back to standard rates after six years.

Haugen believes a permanent levy is the most effective way to generate long-term revenue out of the three options presented Wednesday.

“A temporary lift would not be a viable solution, as it would result in a serious funding cliff in six years when the lift expired,” Haugen said. “Based on our current forecasts, the city would not be in any position to face a serious decline in funding any time in the future.”

What the city has done to shrink the deficit

Despite its growing deficit, the city is spending less this year. In December, the council approved a $438.8 million budget, down from the $543.2 million budgeted for 2023.

For at least a decade, Everett has partnered with other organizations to mitigate financial strain. For example, the Carl Gipson Center was passed off to Volunteers of America in 2021, and the Jetty Island Days summer program is now managed by the Port of Everett and the county.

Additionally, some of the city’s beloved gems, such as the Forest Park Swim Center and the Animal Farm, have been shut down since 2020.

In May 2023, the city authorized a study into the feasibility of reopening the swim center. The study is set to be completed early this year, city spokesperson Simone Tarver said in an email.

Ashley Nash: 425-339-3037; ashley.nash@heraldnet.com; Twitter: @ash_nash00.

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