City budget might turn to voters for help

  • By Chris Fyall Enterprise editor
  • Friday, October 31, 2008 1:02pm

Voters in Edmonds could be asked as soon as 2009 to plug holes in the city’s troubled long-term budget.

Possible multi-million dollar requests include a parks levy, a transportation package, a general property tax hike or a regional fire authority, officials said.

The city created two task forces Oct. 28 to look at the various possibilities. One task force will focus on the regional fire authority, and the other would examine all other options.

“I do not see that we will be able to continue down the line unless something dramatic changes. We will need to go to the voters,” said councilmember Deanna Dawson, who will sit on the second task force. “(We need) ideas from the public about what would they invest in, what do they see as the future for this community.”

City officials should spend most of 2009 studying ballot measures that would bring maximum benefit to voters, Dawson said.

The best measure could be on the November 2009 ballot, she said.

Until then, city officials are trying to close the city’s $5.4 million shortfall for its 2009-2010 budget with a combination of tax hikes and cost cuts.

The shortfall accounts for about 7.6 percent of an anticipated $70.8 million in general fund revenues.

A budget proposal from Mayor Gary Haakenson raises utility taxes to 10 percent and cable television taxes to 6 percent. The changes would cost the average Edmonds taxpayer $86 a year starting in 2009.

Haakenson’s budget also holds open many vacant positions within city government.

But unless the council approves very deep cuts – including closing Yost Pool, stopping maintenance at 31 neighborhood parks and shuttering the economic development department – the city will need to find other answers before 2011, officials said.

City officials have seen Edmonds’ budget crunch coming. It was a major issue in Haakenson’s 2007 reelection campaign against former councilmember Mauri Moore.

For years, rising labor costs have been shrinking the city’s margin for error.

The cost of salaries and benefits for city employees are expected to rise 37.9 percent from 2002 to the end of 2008. During that time, the city has added only one full-time employee, said Debi Humann, the city’s human resources director.

Property-tax collections are up only 26.6 percent since 2002.

Now, residents are demanding action, officials said.

“The only e-mails I have gotten, the only sentiment I have received is, ‘We elect you guys to make decisions,’” said councilmember DJ Wilson, who has repeatedly pushed the council to speed up its traditional budget process.

He’s also pushing the task forces to work quickly.

Wilson sits on both newly created, ballot item task forces.

Wilson called on the second task force – which will examine a parks levy, a property tax levy lid lift, a transportation benefit district vote and other possible ballot items – to try and bring something to the voters as soon as May 2009.

A resolution outlining the May 2009 ballot item would need to finalized by March 2009.

“We should be ambitious,” he said. “If we take all of 2009 to make a decision, it is a disservice to the voters.”

Wilson’s timeline ran into considerable resistance from Haakenson and the rest of the council, who raised concerns about the poor economic environment, and the dangers of haste.

But while the timing of a ballot item is in dispute, the need for one doesn’t seem to be, councilmember Dawson said.

“In the end, it will all depend on that (additional revenue stream),” she said.

Reporter Chris Fyall: 425-673-6525 or

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