A person turns in their ballot at a ballot box located near the Edmonds Library in Edmonds, Washington on Sunday, Nov. 5, 2023. (Annie Barker / The Herald)

A person turns in their ballot at a ballot box located near the Edmonds Library in Edmonds, Washington on Sunday, Nov. 5, 2023. (Annie Barker / The Herald)

Deadline fast approaching for Everett property tax measure

Everett leaders are working to the last minute to nail down a new levy. Next week, the City Council will have to make a final decision.

EVERETT — City leaders are working up until the last minute to nail down a property levy lid lift to put before voters in August, an effort to deal with Everett’s looming budget crisis that could lead to a $12.6 million deficit next year.

Next week, the City Council will have to make a final decision. The city must submit the measure to the county auditor’s office by May 3 to get it on the ballot this summer.

In selecting an increase, officials will have to walk a delicate line: a lid lift high enough to adequately address the deficit, while not so high it alienates voters.

If the lid lift doesn’t pass, leaders will be forced to make difficult choices about where to cut $12.6 million from the city budget next year. Since city projections have the deficit increasing every year, the city would be looking at even more cuts in 2026, city Finance Director Susy Haugen told the council at their meeting Wednesday.

Park maintenance, social services and arts funding are among the areas on the table for cuts, Government Affairs Director Jennifer Gregerson said at the meeting.

Either way, City Council members seem likely to revisit two other options to address the city’s revenue challenges: allowing Sno-Isle Libraries to annex the city’s library system, or allowing the city fire department to merge with a regional fire authority.

At Wednesday’s meeting, council member Mary Fosse was “leaning toward” a levy rate that would give the city three years until the deficit returns. That rate would come to $2.19 per $1,000 in property value, an estimated increase of $29 per month for the average homeowner, according to the city.

One or two years wouldn’t give the city enough time to deal with the revenue issue, Fosse said.

Council member Paula Rhyne said she would also support the three-year option.

She also floated the idea of a lid lift that would solve the budget deficit for four years. She estimated that would come to a levy rate of about $2.24 per $1,000 in assessed value, costing the average homeowner about $31 more per month. This would last until the 2028 presidential race when the city could hear from more voters in an election that will likely see stronger turnout, she noted.

Council member Judy Tuohy had misgivings about the proposed tax increase. A lid lift will lead to rent increases, she said, while many Everett households are struggling financially.

Everett’s median household income was $77,806 in 2022, about 25% lower than the county median of $104,083, according to census data. This school year, 39% of students in the Everett school district are receiving free and reduced lunches, according to state data.

“Inflation, the cost of groceries, utilities, health insurance are all affecting these families,” Tuohy said. “Times are just really tough for the majority of the folks who live in Everett.”

The lift wouldn’t bring back services that have already been cut, she said, calling it “a really tough sell” for voters.

Tuohy added she doesn’t think the city has done all it can to reduce the deficit.

“I just do not feel I can support any level on this levy at this time,” she said.

Council member Liz Vogeli called Tuohy’s comments “pretty brave,” and noted she had doubts that voters would pass any of the lid lift options, though she added she “can also see us putting one forward because of its importance.”

Vogeli suggested the ballot measure use ranked choice voting to present more options to Everett residents. Council member Don Schwab responded he was unsure if the city would have time to add that to the measure, or the authority to do so.

Fosse pointed out the council is not voting to pass the lid lift, but to bring the lift to voters. Residents “will have to make the difficult decision” on whether to increase taxes, which would support social services like “shelter and food relief,” she said.

“While everyone is struggling right now, that’s what these services that we’re maintaining go to support: the most vultnerable among us,” she said, “in addition to community events in our neighborhoods and all of these other things that are so key to our quality of life.”

Schwab, like Fosse, said he was leaning toward a proposal that would put the deficit off three years.

As far as decisions about budget cuts, which will come “no matter what we put on the ballot, it’s going to be some tougher decisions than we’ve made in the past,” he said.

“I don’t want to do this very often,” he said. “I would like to get on and talk about all the great things we are doing here in the city.”

The council will vote May 1 on the final ballot measure.

Sophia Gates: 425-339-3035; sophia.gates@heraldnet.com; Twitter: @SophiaSGates.

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