Proposed Everett budget drops public services, spares police

A pool, an animal farm and more could be paused due to an $18M funding gap under Mayor Cassie Franklin’s plan.

EVERETT — Cuddling a chicken, playing in the pool, seeing friends at the senior center, and visiting your local library branch any day of the week could all go on hiatus in 2021.

The Forest Park Animal Farm, the park’s swim center, the Carl Gipson Senior Center and the Everett Public Library are part of budget cuts proposed by department leaders and Mayor Cassie Franklin next year, as the city looks to cover a projected $18 million deficit. Franklin formally presented her budget proposal to the Everett City Council last week.

“In closing I’d like to again say that this has been an extraordinarily difficult year for our businesses, our staff and our residents,” Franklin said at the Sept. 16 city council meeting. “But in spite of the challenges we’ve faced and continue to face, I’m proud of and grateful for the resiliency and adaptability I’ve seen all around us.”

A sharp drop in spending during the coronavirus pandemic pushed city leaders to lay off or seek voluntary separation agreements from 160 employees in May to address an estimated $14 million revenue shortfall for the 2020 budget. Many laid-off employees couldn’t work because of public health guidelines limiting group size and activities, city leaders said. The city employees union president called the layoffs “draconian.”

This year’s general fund was supposed to have about $148 million in expenses out of the city’s total $430 million in expenditures, but that has seen a drop after a hiring freeze, spending cuts and employment reductions.

Even if public pools or large sports camps could resume, the money from this year’s tax revenue likely won’t be enough to pay for all of it in 2021.

That was just the beginning, as the city seeks to stem ongoing losses caused by expenses outpacing limited revenue growth.

“We have to place responsibility upon ourselves to make the tough decision, even if it means we don’t get re-elected, to do something significant,” Councilmember Jeff Moore said at the Sept. 2 budget workshop. “Before we went into COVID, we already knew we had a structural deficit. We already knew we had declining revenues. We already knew that we have to ask our citizens to pay for what they expect, and we haven’t done so.”

Some city leaders have been reluctant to seek a voter-approved levy lid lift, citing the high unemployment rate in Snohomish County during the pandemic and uncertainty around Boeing’s future in Everett. But without either a higher property or sales tax rate, the city could be forced to shed some of its services.

Everett has considered moving its fire department into a regional fire authority with other nearby governments or merging its transit service with another agency.

But those decisions likely are years away. Meanwhile, the city faces immediate budget constraints.

Labor and benefits comprise the largest part of expenses in the city’s general fund, which covers services such as administration, city council, fire, parks, planning, police and public works.

“There is really no other way of balancing the budget at this point that is financially responsible, other than staff reductions,” Franklin said during the Sept. 2 budget workshop.

The parks and recreation budget was slated for $1.5 million in cuts, mostly from program eliminations and closing the Forest Park pool. The city’s deal with YMCA of Snohomish County could let Everett residents use the Everett YMCA pool on Colby Avenue once pools can open again in Phase 3.

“The way we looked at parks and recreation during these very difficult times is we really felt we needed to protect both open space and our parks,” said Lori Cummings, executive director of Everett Parks.

The Everett Public Library’s finances are facing a $950,000 reduction to about $4.45 million. That will likely mean each branch would close one day a week, in addition to staffing losses. The library board makes decisions about how to use its budget, and the city council determines its overall funding.

“We still don’t know what Phase 3 will look like,” Everett Public Library Director Abigail Cooley said. “We know that in Phase 2, governor’s guidelines allow libraries to operate curbside services with no members of the public in our buildings.”

Administration cut three positions and about $676,000. Everett’s streets division shaved $532,000, but that could affect the city’s responsiveness to street-related complaints, Cummings said during the Sept. 2 budget workshop. The legal department shed two assistant attorneys for about $330,000 in saved expenses.

Everett’s public safety departments have been largely unaffected. A proposed elimination at the Everett Police Department of a vacant records specialist position, as well as filling a vacant lieutenant position with a patrol officer, would cut about $162,000.

With lower bookings and shorter jail stays expected to continue into next year due to COVID-19, the jail budget was proposed for a $600,000 reduction.

But one large chunk of the deficit could affect police in the LEOFF 1 pension plan, as city staff proposed to suspend prefunding it with $3.6 million. Doing so would defer that investment to future years.

“This is a big deal if we take this particular option off the menu,” Councilmember Scott Murphy said Sept. 2. “It really does create a lot of pressure in future years to make up that shortfall.”

The senior center would remain closed with a budget dip of $555,000, with only $61,000 remaining for the senior meals program and the building’s utilities.

Marquee events such as the Independence Day fireworks show and Cinema Under the Stars could be gone as part of the cultural arts department’s proposed $267,000 cuts.

Everett Transit and the two city-owned golf courses mostly pay for themselves and require relatively minimal financing out of the general fund. The city, however, continues to consider Everett Transit’s long-term future that could include severe service reductions, a voter-approved tax increase, or a merger.

The proposed budget should be on the city’s website in mid-October.

The council is scheduled to vote on it Nov. 11.

Ben Watanabe: bwatanabe@heraldnet.com; 425-339-3037; Twitter @benwatanabe.

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