Snohomish wants residents’ take on budget crisis

SNOHOMISH — City leaders want to know if Snohomish voters would pay more taxes to keep the city’s police force and make sure parks stay open.

If voters aren’t willing, the city will probably need to close major parks or contract with the Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office for police services

to make sure the city’s budget stays in the black next year.

City leaders came to that conclusion after spending more than three hours Tuesday night shuffling through an unpalatable menu of painful cuts that included furloughs and a half-dozen position reductions or layoffs.

The city of 9,000 people isn’t pulling in the sales tax dollars it did a few years ago. Despite $1.8 million in cuts since 2008, some expenses continue to climb that can’t be easily controlled, such as employee health care costs.

The city projects that if spending continues at its current rate into next year, the city will be a half-million dollars in the red by the end of 2012. City leaders actually need to find closer to $1 million in savings, since the city needs to have cash in the bank for emergencies.

The City Council’s budget talk Tuesday night was just the beginning. The budget won’t be set until later this year. City leaders made it a point to say they want to hear from taxpayers about how to handle the situation.

The council already unanimously approved a ballot proposal to increase the city’s sales tax by 0.2 percent. That measure is scheduled to be put before voters on the Aug. 16 primary ballot. The money would go toward street maintenance, building a roundabout and adding an extra lane at 30th Street and Highway 9.

Tuesday, City Manager Larry Bauman suggested to the council that Snohomish permanently reduce the size of its government, rather than make Band-Aid changes such as employee furloughs.

City leaders reluctantly agreed it would probably be necessary to cut or reduce positions, including the city’s planning director and maintenance workers. That would save around $400,000, but it also might mean Snohomish’s streets and buildings aren’t taken care of as well as they are now. Without a planning director, the city’s ability to plan for long-term projects is limited.

They also agreed it’s a good idea for the city to have employees switch to a less expensive medical plan and make them pay the difference out of pocket if they wanted to keep the current plan. That would save just under $200,000.

The council wrestled with contracting out police services, acknowledging that while that option might save more than $300,000, there was unquantifiable value to the city having its own force.

“It’s really hard to support this because it’s invaluable to our community,” said Councilwoman Lynn Schilaty of the proposal to contract. “Relationships and connections can’t be taken for granted in their overall effect on our community.”

When it came time to talk about shutting down Snohomish’s major parks, all seven of the council members said flatly “no.” Doing so would save around $160,000 but might lead to parks becoming rundown or vandalized.

Instead, the council decided it might be better to ask taxpayers what they think about paying for those two big-ticket items through an increase in property taxes. State law limits the city to no more than a 1 percent tax hike annually. However, the city can use “banked” tax capacity to raise up to another million dollars in property tax if in previous years the city hasn’t raised property taxes by the full amount.

A tax increase would cost the average Snohomish homeowner with a home assessed at $254,500 around $22 for every $100,000 the city raised in total property taxes. For instance, if the city wanted to raise $300,000 in revenue, that would cost that average Snohomish homeowner $66.26 annually.

City leaders also said they want to hear more about the potential impacts of creating up to a two-week furlough for city employees, which could save about $80,000. They also directed the city manager to talk with the city’s three unions about employee cuts in pay as an option to laying off employees.

The matter will be discussed again next Tuesday.

Reporter Debra Smith: 425-339-3197 or dsmith@heraldnet.com.

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