By The Herald Editorial Board
Even as the City of Everett continues to face a structural deficit, one that makes balancing the city’s budget each year — as is mandatory — tougher and tougher against its end-of-year reserves, the city, Mayor Cassie Franklin believes, has cut everything there is to be cut.
“There isn’t anything left to cut or defer without negatively impacting our quality of life and our economic recovery,” Franklin said in her online budget address Wednesday.
That’s not a statement of surrender, but it is one of fact and a call for city residents and the Everett City Council — which will be adding at least three new members next year as the transition to district elections takes effect — to begin discussions and act on two proposals that could be the city’s most significant steps toward a sustainable budget. The first regards revenue — or more bluntly put, taxes: The second addresses the future operation of the city’s more than 120-year-old fire department.
Previous cuts have been difficult, painful and noticeable, particularly in the losses of more than 160 city employees in 2020 at the start of the pandemic.
Additional cuts at this point would mean fewer opportunities to generate revenue as well as greater reductions in services and civic enjoyment.
“The council and I need to work with the community on what kind of city they want to be,” she said in an interview with the editorial board prior to Wednesday’s address. “It’s time to weigh in and tell us which services they want and at what level they’re willing to support.”
So, yes that means discussions and a potential ballot issue before voters in the coming year on an increase of the city’s property tax levy lid. Such a vote seeks to allow the city to assess above the 1 percent annual increase Everett, like other local governments, is allowed to take; a limit on additional revenue that hasn’t kept pace with inflation and hasn’t been increased in 20 years.
The other option Franklin said the city should continue to investigate — though not specifically discussed in the budget address — is moving the fire department off the city’s books and into a regional fire authority, again another option that other communities in the county have taken advantage of in recent years. Everett and Mukilteo remain the only cities in the county with their own fire departments.
The city would seek to merge the fire department with another existing fire district in the county, moving the costs and the tax revenue off its books. Another option, though it would require action by the state Legislature, would allow the fire department to become its own standalone fire authority.
The most recent example of consolidation was this year’s approval by voters in Arlington to join its fire department with the North County Regional Fire Authority.
In the case of Arlington’s merger, the switch in taxing authority from the city to the North County district, which took effect in August, is not expected to mean an increase in taxes for the majority of affected taxpayers. An estimated 28 percent will pay about $60 more a year, while another 18 percent would pay more than that, Arlington officials reported. As well, no firefighter or EMT jobs were lost in the transition, and residents are not expected to see a reduction in service or an increase in response times.
Arlington voters approved the ballot measure with nearly 90 percent in favor.
But beyond cuts, much of what Everett has already accomplished has come through establishing partnerships that promise to continue valued services in the city, even when no longer supported by the city alone. One example has been the recent agreement with Volunteers of America to operate the Carl Gipson Senior Center. Others include partnerships with the Port of Everett to continue Jetty Island Days and with the YMCA to provide children’s programs at Camp Patterson.
Even recognizing the discussions that will have to follow on a lift of the city’s property tax lid and the fire department’s future, there are initiatives in the mayor’s proposed budget that point to better times and look to do more and invest more with what is available.
Highlights in the proposed budget focus on the mayor’s priorities, specifically regarding efforts to address homelessness, affordable housing, the green economy and climate change and the city’s parks, library system and the arts:
On homelessness, a response coordinator would head the city’s responses to chronic homelessness, including the addition of 40 more pallet shelters, some of which will be used at the existing pallet site near the Everett Gospel Mission, and others at a second location in the city.
To diversify the economy and encourage businesses with an environmental focus, Franklin wants to establish the city as a hub for the green economy, and is continuing work to recruit biotech, clean energy companies and others, like InFarm, now hiring in Everett, that is developing a sustainable system of vertical farming to grow organic produce for the area’s restaurants and markets. About 100 acres, much of it owned by the city, northeast of the interchange of I-5 and U.S. 2, is planned as a center for such businesses and has been dubbed EPIC Green, for Everett Point Industrial Center.
Other proposals include:
Hiring a fundraiser for the Everett Public Library, seeking grants and other fundraising opportunities to support the library’s programs, duplicating the success Everett has had with a similar effort at the city’s animal shelter.
Providing income-based veterinary services at the shelter that will allow families to keep pets they otherwise could not afford to keep healthy, and avoiding the shelter having to either euthanize animals or provide care for the animal and find a new owner.
Using grant funding for an Everett Municipal Court program that would connect those with substance use disorders in the criminal justice system to treatment and other services. And establishing a social worker intern, again focused on the homeless community, at the libraries and at other city locations.
Updating park facilities, including new playgrounds at Howarth and Thorton A. Sullivan parks.
Expansion of routes and frequency for Everett Transit buses.
Further support for the arts in the city by soliciting new public art, including a sculpture intended to acknowledge the region’s Indigenous heritage and the land that Everett now occupies.
Designing California Street as a bicycle corridor between downtown and U.S. 2., and replacing Mukilteo Boulevard’s Edgewater Bridge, which is beyond its service life and doesn’t meet seismic standards.
Reassigning a current employee as a full-time resource conservation manager to evaluate the city’s use of energy, water and other natural resources and recommend opportunities for efficiency and conservation, part of the city’s implementation of its Climate Action Plan to coordinate city departments’ work on climate and sustainability.
All told, the message in the mayor’s budget proposal is clear: Franklin is done with cuts and wants to continue the work of rebuilding Everett.
So, too, should the city’s residents and its council.
Weigh in on Everett’s budget
To review the 2022 proposed budget and comment go to everett.wa.gov/budget.
Corrections: On earlier version of this editorial misspelled the name of the Carl Gipson Senior Center and gave an incorrect web address for the City of Everett budget page. Both now are correcet.