A boy gets a chance to sound the horn in an Everett Fire Department engine with the help of Capt. Jason Brock during a surprise Make-A-Wish event Oct. 21, 2023, at Thornton A. Sullivan Park in Everett. (Ryan Berry / The Herald file photo)

A boy gets a chance to sound the horn in an Everett Fire Department engine with the help of Capt. Jason Brock during a surprise Make-A-Wish event Oct. 21, 2023, at Thornton A. Sullivan Park in Everett. (Ryan Berry / The Herald file photo)

Editorial: Everett voters will set course for city finances

This fall and in coming years, they will be asked how to fund and support the services they use.

By The Herald Editorial Board

Everett Mayor Cassie Franklin, when she took office in January 2018, sat down on her first day for a briefing from the city’s finance director, Susy Haugen. Haugen was blunt.

“I had a meeting with Susy and she was like, ‘It’s worse than you think.’ And I’m like, ‘Oh,” the two-term mayor said during a recent interview.

How ‘Oh?’ Franklin’s tenure has featured repeated choruses of terms such as “structural deficit” and a search for programs and positions to trim or cut, all while attempting to preserve the services and quality of life touches that residents most expect the city administration to provide.

That structural deficit represents the difference between the costs to provide services and what the city collects in revenue. But those costs keep increasing faster than the city’s revenues. Among the pressures that have kept revenues from keeping pace with inflation and more is a 2001 state initiative that has capped local governments’ ability to increase property tax collections to a 1 percent increase, without voter approval.

Leaving cuts as the only option to balance budgets each year.

Even as the city has made cuts and successfully shifted some services to other providers, the easiest of the options have been exhausted and still the deficit grows; the current deficit projection for 2025 is $12.8 million and nearly $36 million by 2030.

“People were like, ‘Well, just cut your city expenditures and everything’s fine,” she said. But those cuts have run up against the expectations of many who have understood those programs as being part of Everett’s fabric. Even so, venerable Everett programs such as the city’s senior center, the animal farm at Forest Park, varied recreation programs and a foot ferry each summer to Jetty Island have in recent years left the city’s books and, instead, where possible, found new providers.

Haugen, during a city council meeting last month, ran through a list of the cuts and transfers of programs that the city has made in recent years. A transition in management of the city’s Carl Gipson Senior Center to the Volunteers of America offers an example of what that will mean eventually for city finances.

By 2028, VOA will have full authority for the senior center, and the city will end its contract and its payment of a management fee to the organization. The net savings in 2024 — the difference between what the city would have spent on operating the senior center and what it is paying the VOA — is about $470,000, Haugen said.

A half-million here, and a half-million there, and it starts to add up to real money, but the city has largely exhausted its options for removing costs from its budget and finding new revenue sources.

“My goal is to really help the community understand that there isn’t much else left to cut,” Franklin said.

What is left to balance the city’s books, Franklin and other city officials say, are three proposals, each which in the coming years will go before city voters for their approval.

First up this November is likely to be a request to voters to lift that 1 percent lid on property tax collections. The city council would have to authorize the request before August to get the measure on the ballot. An amount for the increase hasn’t been set, but Franklin said the city is considering a rate that would add between $200 and $250 a year for the average value home in Everett, about $520,000.

Passage of that increase will give the city enough financial cushion to pursue two more major shifts of programs from the city’s shoulders:

Joining the two branches of the 125-year-old Everett Public Library with the Sno-Isle Libraries system of 23 libraries in Snohomish and Island counties; and

Merging the Everett Fire Department with a regional fire authority.

The goal in the mergers for each, Franklin said, is to keep the services operating at levels that residents expect.

Understanding the pride and ownership many Everett residents feel for the city libraries, the mayor said, if the city had to keep responsibility for the library it might have to reduce its days of service in order to meet budget. Likewise, maintaining its own fire department might eventually mean longer response times.

The Everett Library Board of Trustees, in a recent letter to the city council, expressed its wish to remain part of the city but said it would remain open to the idea of a merger if judged best for residents, The Herald’s Ashley Nash reported last month.

Both mergers also may take years to complete, because of negotiations with unions and other considerations.

Of the three options, the library merger would have the least financial impact, but would still free up about $6 million each year in today’s dollars; the merger with another fire authority — likely South County Fire — could have the largest impact for the city.

Ultimately, the moves will also will shift the tax bills for residents, from the city to the regional library and fire and emergency service districts.

“But what this is going to do is help preserve quality of life services,” Franklin said.

If these don’t pass, she said, to make the continued cuts that would be forced by the budget, there are services, specifically the city’s police department, that can’t be cut.

“I’d be cutting library hours. I would be cutting park maintenance. I would be cutting social workers and arts funding. All the stuff that we want. Because that’s really the only thing the city is not required to do.”

The changes that Everett voters will be asked to make this fall and in the future will be noticeable. But Everett residents are being given the option to decide whether those services remain; with new signs on the door, perhaps, but still open and serving city residents.

Meeting

The City of Everett’s revenue options will be discussed at the city council meeting’s regular meeting at 6:30 p.m. March 20 in council chambers, 2930 Wetmore Ave., Suite 9-A, Everett.

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