County seeks to meet the challenges

By BARBARA COTHERN

The year 2001 county council budget review process we have just completed was a challenge. In response to the voters’ approval of Initiative 722, the council cut $3.2 million from the proposed 2001 county budget before giving our final approval on Nov. 21. Proposed increases in county surface water fees were also rejected.

Snohomish County citizens are challenging us to meet their broad range of public service expectations, almost all of which can be directly tied to the impact of growth on our community. To help reduce the neighborhood impacts of growth, the council also approved shifting funds and issuing bonds to finance new parks, neighborhood infrastructure improvements and accelerated urban planning. The final 2001 budget totaled $581.6 million, a 5 percent reduction from the current (year 2000) budget.

Here are the details.

The budget reduction: Snohomish County’s 2001 budget has been significantly reduced to comply with the provisions of Initiative 722. Property tax increases will be kept at a 2 percent adjustment and all property taxes will revert to be based on 1999-value assessments.

I have to say, however, that we are able to meet this $3.2 million revenue cut in ways that concern me for the future.

We cut into the county’s reserves for emergencies and in making these cuts, we depended heavily on the revenues resulting from today’s strong economy. Were we not enjoying a healthy economy, we would have had to cut significantly into services the public expects and needs.

My concern, of course, is that emergencies and downturns in the economy are inevitable. Snohomish County, and all branches of local government, will face a serious crisis when these occur. The solution in terms of more stable revenue sources lies with voters and the state Legislature. Our challenge today is to balance the revenues we have against the expectations citizens have for a fair return on their taxes.

The Neighborhood Infrastructure Project that the County Council is adding to this year’s budget begins to meet those expectations. The 2001 budget offers concrete solutions to some of the impacts of growth that most affect our communities.

We are juggling our resources and our priorities in three categories:

  • Parks are essential amenities for a balanced and healthy community. We are committing $5 million to purchase new neighborhood parks and open space in our fastest growing communities. We will run out of potential park properties or be priced out of them if we don’t move quickly. These new funds, raised through revenue bonds, will allow us to do just that – move quickly.

  • Accelerating Urban Planning. We must meet the challenge to keep pace with our rapid growth – to keep out ahead with comprehensive planning that fairly accounts for future development. That future is now. The critical step in preparing effective land use plans is to complete master drainage plans that will guide the construction of neighborhood drainage improvements, and from them will flow all other aspects of comprehensive planning.

    To kickstart this process, we are raising an additional $12.5 million to complete drainage plans in the next two years, cutting eight years off the original pay-as-you-go timetable. The same funds that would have paid for the lengthy planning process will pay for the bonds that significantly speed up the process.

    In addition to these direct benefits for homeowners, we will also be helping to meet our obligation and commitment to growth management and to restoring and preserving habitat for our endangered native salmon.

    There’s so much at stake; we just can’t wait for the regular revenue stream to catch up. We have to invest up front.

  • Neighborhood projects. The third category in the Neighborhood Infrastructure Project will bring direct results quickly into our growing neighborhoods. The county’s Public Works Department will refocus and redirect its efforts into the areas of highest growth. We are providing from current funds approximately $1.2 million for public works projects, such as the construction of walkways, signalization projects, landscaping improvements to detention ponds, and solving neighborhood drainage problems.

    Additionally, $500,000 is set aside for specific neighborhood improvement projects identified by residents and community groups. Further delay here is not an option. County staff is charged with preparing the criteria for choosing these projects by the end of January. We have to get moving.

    One more important element in this budget will help bring progress in implementing technologies that will provide direct and convenient benefits to our citizens. For too long we have stumbled in the area of Internet services, trying to meet this growing demand with our limited resources.

    Therefore, we are redirecting resources to bring in the kind of professional expertise necessary to effectively plan and implement Internet-based services delivery. This is a long overdue investment that will reap significant benefits for citizens and for county government efficiency.

    Lastly, inherent in the successful implementation of all these initiatives is the crucial element of public involvement. We can’t lose sight of who we do our work for. There is no moat around county government. Open doors are not enough. We have to actively seek and, most of all, welcome citizen involvement in government. We need citizen participation and support to define our direction and set priorities so we can effectively provide the critical services people expect.

    Barbara Cothern is chairwoman of the Snohomish County Council. A Democrat, she represents the council’s District 4 in south Snohomish County, including Mill Creek, Bothell and Mountlake Terrace.

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