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Thoughts on the City Council's 2013-14 Biennial Budget Review

Mercer Island City Council has set seven budget meetings to prioritize services and discuss tax increases. I sense a willingness to expand discretionary services that will require higher taxes.

The City Council has seven meetings scheduled for the Biennial Budget. These are very important meetings where the Council prioritizes services and decides on tax increases. Unfortunately, as a fiscally sensitive councilperson, I think our process is a bit backwards.

Our first five meetings involve Staff presenting projects, services and personnel requests from which the Council chooses without explicitly understanding budget implications. Then on November 19th, we are presented the bill for the five previous meetings. Inevitably we exceed the budget. We then make a few “cuts” but have painted ourselves in a corner and have the dilemma of redoing the budget over the holidays or raising taxes.

Even after expanding headcount during the difficult economic times of 2011 from 7.8 per 1,000 to 8.0 per 1,000, I count at least another seven positions the Council is signaling a willingness to endorse: Deputy City Clerk, Hire Ahead Police Officer, Communications Coordinator, Parks Manager, two IT positions and a TF Sustainability officer. The “cuts” will come in the form of not authorizing several but keeping the balance. As all leaders know, head counts drive budgets. Our change should be net zero.

Maybe more importantly, the Country is 37 months into a very slow recovery with stubborn unemployment. As with the Country, the economic recovery remains uncertain for Islanders. I don’t feel the economy and personal finances are sufficiently recovered. We should still be looking for efficiencies that decrease or at least arrest the tax burden on our citizens. Just seven months ago we balanced the budget on the revenue side instead of the expense side. We raised water rates, sewer rates, storm and surface water rates, EMS tax, permit taxes, ambulance transport taxes and property taxes. I think to raise taxes again is inappropriate. Furthermore, raising taxes are unnecessary with proper planning and discipline.

I will work tirelessly in treating your tax dollars as if they were my own. I recognize that there are many nice things on the market, but I think you want me to decide between those services which are critical and those which are far from critical. Additionally, I think you want me to break down those financial silos that may finance low priority projects or positions for more critical underfinanced projects.

This is a very important topic that deserves public attention and is far from complete. Thank you for sharing your thoughts.

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Claus Jensen July 14, 2012 at 05:38 PM
Ira is right - remodel is the way to go...
Susan Lund July 15, 2012 at 01:36 PM
It's troubling that neither the School Board nor, apparently, the City Council got the message from voters which was soundly delivered with the recent historic defeat of the school demolition bond. Mike Cero has rightly read the voters' message: there is too much economic uncertainty to be asking us for these commitments.
Susan Lund July 15, 2012 at 04:52 PM
Mercer Island taxpayers sent a serious message recently by the historic refusal of the school bond that these uncertain economic times aren't appropriate for unnecessary spending. The school board responded by paying consultants $15,000 to figure out why it failed. Really? Repairs and remodels we support. Demolitions we oppose. Mike Cero gets the message and he represents the majority on this one, as the bond vote proves.
Jon H July 15, 2012 at 06:27 PM
Expanding headcount for a city like ours should be based on projected cost savings by hiring that head. If it costs 100K in salary and benefits, then the projected savings should come in at no less than 150-200K (or more since these savings are generally overstated). Why is the city hiring IT? I'm interested in knowing the intended function. So many companies in the area that can provide on-demand infrastructure, software and tools our budget should be decreasing in this area. With a fixed land area, nearly 100% built-up that kind of growth can't come from anything more than higher taxes or equal trade on existing head count.
Jerry Gropp Architect AIA July 23, 2012 at 07:59 PM
. After walking around the SouthEnd Fire Station, I'm more than ever convinced that a tear-down is not the way to go. Too much good structure- that could be part of the new Fire Station rather than in a landfill and a larger than needed Bond Issue. As a retired architect, I've ordered lots of necessary demolition work- w/ no regrets. Jerry-

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