2018 budget approved, but not without rancor

‘Semantics’ often got in the way of discussions
By Brian Soergel | Dec 07, 2017

The all-important city of Edmonds annual budget process is mostly, as has been reported here many times, a slog of serious sausage-making overtaken by numbers, back-and-forth discussions, give-and-take concessions and countless hours of work.

But never has it been so engaging as Tuesday night, when councilmembers approved a $92.4 million 2018 budget amid rancor, agreements, disagreements and stern warnings from Mayor Dave Earling.

One came from discussion of Earling’s proposed budget request to set aside $2 million in reserve from the general fund to get the renovation of Civic Field, a $10 million to $12 million project, off the ground and help persuade others to contribute to the fund.

It worked. Just last week, the Hazel Miller Foundation donated $1.5 million to the project.

But Councilmembers Kristiana Johnson and Diane Buckshnis had reservations about the amount of money, not the least that it wasn’t included as a line item.

“That $2 million is set aside with obvious intent to spend it,” Earling said. “If we diminish that $2 million, I will veto the budget if you lessen the amount. Because it’s made with a certain dynamic and has already created another $1.5 million dollars. We need to show serious commitment. It’s not an intent to fritter away $2 million dollars.

“I frankly don’t give a damn what you call it; it’s $2 million dollars and you know what the intent is. You’re arguing over semantics, and I’m tired of it.”

Councilmember Mike Nelson, who on Tuesday was voted council president for 2018, proposed the most additions to the general fund, as proposed by Earling and city staff, and at the same time created the most controversy with proposals to cut funds from the budget.

One called for the elimination of the city’s federal lobbyist, Tim Lovain, and his $72,000 city contract. Lovain has lobbied for the city since 2015, according to Finance Director Scott James.

Lovain’s work has been critical for the city, Earling wrote in a Mayor’s Corner column this September in the Beacon.

Economic Development Director Patrick Doherty echoed Earling’s thoughts in an email to councilmembers. It was his proposal to keep the federal lobbyist to assist the city in pursuing funds for further redevelopment of the Highway 99 corridor, as well as to pursue funds for the Edmonds Street Waterfront Connector and represent the city in support or opposition of federal legislation of concern to Edmonds.

“In these ever-changing times in Washington, D.C, we rely on a seasoned local expert like Tim Lovain to keep us up-to-date on opportunities for funding and the changing requirements for grant applications … In addition, with regard to federal grant programs, it is often the staff who are key to success, and Tim has developed close working relationships with important staff members at USDOT, within Congressional offices, and elsewhere in D.C.

“In addition, his work as lobbyist for WSDOT gives him keen insight into the availability and applicability of funds to major capital projects in our region.

“As we have submitted … grant applications over the past few weeks for federal funds to help finance the Edmonds Street Waterfront Connector, Tim has been able to contact key staff in the offices of our Congressional delegation and get all-important letters of support. ...

“In summary, our position is that it is vitally important to us to have a seasoned, well connected expert with boots on the ground in D.C. both to represent us and make key connections for us as we pursue both federal funding and support or oppose legislative initiatives.”

But councilmembers axed the contract in a 4-3 vote, with Councilmembers Nelson, Buckshnis, Johnson and Adrienne Fraley-Monillas voting yes.

“We removed funding for the federal lobbyist because a majority of us felt it was not clear what added benefit the city has received after keeping someone on retainer for $6,000 a month for over one-and-a-half years,” Nelson told the Beacon on Wednesday.

“The mayor regularly talks about his ability to call up our U.S. senators to support various projects, and he will still have that ability. Paying for someone on a project-to-project basis as other small cities do may make more sense in the future.”

Later in the council meeting, city councilmembers approved $917,494 to begin work on the Edmonds waterfront connector from Edmonds Street down to the ferry.

Earling took the opportunity to circle back to the defunding of the federal lobbyist.

“Council, you’re handing us quite a difficult quandary this evening,” he said. “Part of the long-range design of getting this project put together involves building credibility at the federal and the state level.

“I’m going to have to go the Legislature to start talking to them about this project set-aside. When they understand we have no one in Washington, D.C., to begin to gather the support for the federal money, we’re beginning to bury ourselves. If we don’t have the federal lobbyist carrying the weight of $24 to $25 million (for the connector project), that will provide a problem for us.

“It’s difficult for me to talk to state Legislators and convince them that it’s a good risk; they’ve already given us $1.2 million dollars, to what end? You’re leading us down a blind alley unless we have a federal lobbyist to help us sustain interest in this project.”

Nelson had a quick rejoinder.

“I think you’re selling yourself short, Mr. Mayor,” he said. “I think you have all the skills and talents to meet with our elected representatives, as you have done in the past in funding for many other federal projects. And I’m sure you can do the same moving forward working with our federal representatives in achieving the funding needed.”

Earling had a reply to that reply.

“Well, thank you very much,” he said. “As council president, you’ll be able to come with me and convince the legislators of that, and I’m serious about that because I see us going down a blind alley and, frankly, in good faith couldn’t talk to our Legislature in positive terms about the project.”

The council also voted against $128,000 for a new capital projects manager to oversee future parks and recreation programs and $40,000 to remodel city conference rooms.

Nelson also proposed $500,000 in an effort to combat what he said was rising homelessness and opioid addiction in Edmonds. Councilmember Tom Mesaros suggested limiting the amount to $150,000 each, for a total of $300,000.

The bloc of Nelson, Buckshnis, Johnson and Fraley-Monillas voted that down, too.

Finance Director Scott James advised councilmembers that at this time they have no authority to spend money on homelessness and opioid issues.

The money would have to be transferred from a new fund to be created via ordinance to be approved by councilmembers so they can take up the issue next year to create the fund and determine how to spend it.

Nelson agreed to modify the amendment to include James’ suggestions.

“Our state laws give city councils the final authority on what a city budget should be spent on,” Nelson told the Beacon. “It is an important check and balance to our system of government. Our council worked very hard together in reviewing and approving about 90 percent of the budget decision packets submitted by the mayor.

“Some of us also passed amendments, making cuts and adding to areas I felt needed to be addressed, including funding for an additional police officer and a climate and renewable energy consultant and setting aside funds for the opioid crisis and homelessness.

“With the creation of these funds, we are taking a tangible step in acknowledging that homelessness and opioids are a problem in our city. We will have a dedicated group of individuals beyond just councilmembers to start working on this in the beginning of next year.”

Look for more information on the 2018 budget in next week’s Beacon.

 

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