Everett council embarks on long journey to balanced budget

EVERETT — Mayor Ray Stephanson’s budget proposal stirred up mixed reaction Wednesday night at a meeting of the City Council, where an acrimonious debate over process created a brief sideshow.

Stephanson’s proposal aims to bridge Everett’s projected $13 million deficit for 2015, which will grow to $21 million by 2018 unless the budget is cut, more revenue is generated or both.

Expenses are growing at a rate of 4.1 percent per year, while revenue is only growing at 2.3 percent.

“This is an unsustainable model and the time is right to bring that back into balance,” Stephanson said.

The proposal before the council identifies about $9.5 million in new revenue and cuts to the budget, with the balance of a 2015 deficit covered by $3.7 million in unspent money from 2013.

During a period allotted for public comment, Everett taxpayer Cletus Skrabak criticized the mayor’s approach.

“It is skewed toward labor, which means that the taxpayers take it in the shorts,” Skrabak said. “There are $3 million in cuts, but $6 million in taxes and fees.”

He said the city should take bolder steps to cut staff or make employees contribute more toward medical costs.

Several of the revenue-generating items were presented to the council as ordinances. Many of the proposed budget cuts — such as a plan to eliminate 15 city positions — would not need the council’s approval.

The council is expected to continue to debate the proposal over the summer.

On Wednesday, Councilwoman Brenda Stonecipher traded accusations with Councilmen Scott Murphy and Jeff Moore over the transparency of the budget process. Stonecipher said some council members had met with the mayor’s staff outside of regular meetings, effectively cutting colleagues and the public out of the conversation. That process hadn’t kept with the spirit of the council’s 2010 decision to debate all issues during regular meetings as a committee of the whole, she said.

“Councilwoman Stonecipher, I find your comments to be a bit disingenuous, and I’ll tell you why,” Murphy said.

Murphy said he’d taken care to let his colleagues know he’d be meeting with the mayor’s staff and took pains to share their opinions. He also said he’d complied with state open-meetings law.

Murphy and Moore took umbrage at the suggestion they’d done anything wrong.

“I didn’t mean to imply that there was anything illegal going on,” Stonecipher said.

Councilman Paul Roberts helped quell the debate by concurring that the council should have a discussion about the legislative process, but not now.

“I think having these conversations in the context of the budget isn’t helpful,” he said.

Roberts asked that the council take it up later in the year.

Much of the rest of the council’s discussion centered on the technical aspects of the proposal.

Key to the mayor’s budget solution is $6.5 million in new revenue, half of which would come from utility tax hikes and new taxes on cable and garbage services.

A $20 car-tab fee would raise another $1.5 million, and the rest would come from business license fees and renewal fees, traffic mitigation fees, higher permitting and review fees, a takeover of pet licensing from the county and a requirement that all parking tickets be paid before a vehicle can be released from impound.

Among the cuts Stephanson identified, the largest single item would be elimination of 15 positions, although the mayor has not identified which positions or whether they are already vacant.

Cutting 15 paid positions would save $1.2 million. Another $965,000 would be gained if the city extended its schedule to fully pay for firefighter and police officer pensions by 10 years to 2040.

Other cuts outlined by the mayor include eliminating the library outreach program, including the Bookmobile; requiring short-term sentences be served with electronic home detention instead of jail time; streamlining contracts for small projects; transferring inmates who are serving longer sentences to jails outside the region; eliminating lifeguards at Silver Lake beach; and starting a screening process for the city’s public defender program.

Getting control of health-care costs is part of the mayor’s long-term budget-balancing act. He’d like to implement a 10 percent contribution for all city employees.

The city has required a 10 percent contribution from elected officials and non-union staff for nearly two years, but bringing in the rest will mean negotiating with the city’s labor unions.

As part of that process, Stephanson proposed hiring consultants to review the budgets and needs of the fire department, police department and Everett Transit.

The council asked that the utility taxes take effect on Jan. 1, rather than later this year.

The ordinances that require a council vote will be debated June 11 and 18, with a vote scheduled for the June 18 council meeting.

Chris Winters: 425-374-4165 or cwinters@heraldnet.com.

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