Youngsters delight over piglets at the Forest Park Animal Farm in June 2005. The petting zoo is among several programs that may be cut from Everett’s budget for next year because of a budget deficit. (Dan Bates / Herald file photo)

Youngsters delight over piglets at the Forest Park Animal Farm in June 2005. The petting zoo is among several programs that may be cut from Everett’s budget for next year because of a budget deficit. (Dan Bates / Herald file photo)

Editorial: Everett budget cuts will be felt but are necessary

The mayor wants cuts to staff and popular programs, but waiting will bring the loss of much more.

By The Herald Editorial Board

“We’ve made the invisible cuts,” Everett Mayor Cassie Franklin said Monday in an interview.

What follows next year and in coming years — as the city continues to confront a long-looming structural budget deficit — are losses and changes to staff positions, popular programs and some new fees and fee increases that are intended to take a significant chunk out of an estimated budget deficit of $13.25 million for 2019.

The cuts now being recommended by Franklin to the Everett City Council as it begins its budget process won’t be invisible; they will be felt. Put those cuts off, however, and the downsizing would have to go much deeper. Were the city to continue at current spending levels that $13.25 million deficit is projected to grow to $16.4 million by 2020 and $23.7 million by 2022.

The structural deficit Everett officials face isn’t unique to the city. All governments are facing increased costs for staff, especially for public safety. And like Snohomish County and other county and municipal governments, local governments that rely on property taxes for much of their revenue have seen the growth of that revenue limited by state law.

As well, local governments took hits during the Great Recession when consumers cut back on purchases and sales tax and business tax revenues declined. Even as the economy has improved, Everett and other local governments are trying to catch up with maintenance and purchases that were deferred during the recession.

Everett also is playing catch-up to fill police and fire department positions that were left vacant during the downturn but have since created concerns about public safety.

Franklin and others in the city have approached the budget with protecting two priorities: public safety and quality of life. Neighborhoods have to be safe, streets and utilities in good condition and people have to have a park they can walk to, the mayor said.

But there are amenities and programs the city has supported for years for which it can no longer fully provide. There are no “silver bullets” that will allow the city to make one or two cuts, she said; instead a broad range of cuts, most suggested by individual departments themselves, are recommended.

Chief among them are the elimination of 13 full-time staff positions of the city’s current 1,133 FTEs. Most of that will come through attrition and elimination of positions now vacant, but three employees have been notified their jobs will end by Dec. 31. At the same time, the mayor’s office and city departments are reorganizing to make more efficient use of staff and eliminate redundant tasks. And for police and fire, emphasis will be on people on the street rather than those behind desks, Franklin said.

The city may also consider joining its fire and EMS services with a regional fire authority, rather than maintaining its own fire department.

Where Franklin’s cuts are likely to face the most opposition from residents and even members of the city council are those to popular programs in the arts and culture, the public library, Everett Transit and parks. Among them:

• Elimination of Forest Park’s Animal Farm;

• Reductions to the library’s materials budget and maintenance and operation budget;

• Ending funding for mailings from the city’s Neighborhoods office and its neighborhood groups; and

• Route changes and service reductions for Everett Transit that are already under consideration to address a $1.6 million budget deficit for that agency by 2020.

With those cuts, the proposed budget also recommends new fees and fee increases, including:

• A $30 annual membership for the city’s Carl Gipson Senior Center;

• A fee for building plan examinations and inspections by the fire marshal;

• Increases to $40 from $20 for parking tickets and an increased fee for false home-burglary alarms and an administrative fee for use of off-duty police for private events; and

• A fee for use of city meeting rooms and other facilities.

None of those or other suggestions will make huge dents in the budget deficit on their own. Eliminating the petting zoo saves the city about $70,000 a year. Charging a $2.50-a-month fee at the senior center is expected to provide about $21,600 in revenue to help fund the center’s annual cost to the city of nearly $800,000. But combined, “Phase 1” of Franklin’s budget will help backfill about $6 million of the projected deficit.

The understandable temptation will be to make exceptions here and there, to save this program or that because the case can be made that it doesn’t cost that much and — it, too — contributes to the city’s quality of life.

Each absolutely does. But there may be options to continue some programs without the city’s support.

Franklin disappointed many earlier in the year by pulling the city’s financial support for the long-running Monte Cristo Awards ceremony, which recognizes the work of homeowners and businesses to renovate homes and gardens and shops. But volunteers have now stepped up to take on the awards ceremony and continue a program that promotes neighborhood pride and city beautification.

Turf wars will have to be avoided, especially as the city considers agreements with other agencies to efficiently provide services.

Last week, the union for the city’s bus drivers suggested that the city end its cost-sharing agreement with Community Transit, which helps support the Swift Bus Blue line between Everett and Shoreline. Doing so would return $1.7 million in sales tax revenue to Everett Transit to head off service cuts and route changes, a union official said.

But it’s unlikely Everett Transit could then as affordably offer a similar service, and it would force commuters to make a transfer at the county line, adding to commute times and taking the “Swift” out of a popular transit option.

If public transit is to maintain and encourage greater use among commuters and everyday users, Everett officials may need to consider other such arrangements with Community Transit, Sound Transit and other agencies.

There’s hope that, especially following the council’s recent adoption of the Metro Everett plan — which should encourage more commercial and residential development — that Everett will start to see some increases in all three of its revenue bases of property, business and sales taxes.

Until then, city leaders will have to make some unpopular but necessary decisions.

Correction: Budget information in this editorial has been updated to reflect current numbers. The estimated revenue from charging a $2.50-a-month membership fee at the Carl Gipson Senior Center is expected to bring in $21,600 against the senior center’s total budget cost of $800,000. In addition, a proposal to charge a fee for the Jetty Island ferry has been removed because of the cost of implementation.

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