City goals proving expensive

“Money, money, money … Money makes the world go around, the world go around…” or so sing Sally Bowles and the emcee in the 1972 musical “Cabaret.”

The song could have served as a theme for the mayor-City Council retreat this past week as city leaders met to agree on goals for the coming year amid recognition that achieving the desired outcomes would cost more money than is currently available.

That the city was considering new revenue options has been known for over a year, and residents may recall City Hall and Lakehaven Utility District exchanged opinions over possible legal action should the city pursue Mayor Jim Ferrell’s interest in a utility tax. In the 2017 city elections, the possibility of a tax increase seemed to stay in the background and was not high on the debate list among the candidates. Mayoral candidate Susan Honda did raise the issue late in her unsuccessful race as a concern about the city’s financial position.

But at its retreat, city leaders were slowly guided to the increased revenue option by their discussion on goals and how to achieve them.

This year’s format was a change from previous years when city staff simply presented various policy initiatives that the council had already seen. But this council has two new members and others with limited experience. Also, there is still some raw feelings over the race for mayor, deputy mayor and City Council that may need time to heal.

The format, though fairly typical for management groups, was new and over seven hours emphasized communication and agreement on goals through consensus building. It provided two advantages as it masked any remaining political feelings and slowly walked city leaders toward the recognition that their goals are expensive. Over this past year, the finance department has briefed council members on the cost of the Performing Arts and Event Center and police, parks and recreation and public works departments, which could result in significant cuts or the need for new revenue.

City Hall observers have noted neither the Target property nor the PAEC naming rights have sold and have wondered what would happen when the COPS grant to hire additional police officers runs out in three years and the cost of the new police officers becomes the full responsibility of the city. At that point, credit card financing comes due. During the discussion, council members were warming to the “tax” question and actually trying out spin control answers of comparisons to other cities that may be used in future public discussions. The No. 1 city goal became increasing sustainable revenue streams. The desired outcome is to fully fund the city budget and its programs.

On other policy fronts, there were noticeable changes in the dialog that reflect the new dynamics.

Where the previous council was conservative and docile, this council appears more moderate and willing to take risks, ask questions and raise new topics. There are only two new council members, Jesse Johnson and Hoang Tran, but the impact seems bigger as the tone has changed and “inclusion” became a more-pronounced part of several policy discussions. All council members urged for the city to work with the Greater Federal Way Chamber of Commerce to retain and attract new business, including minority-owned business. An improved business base could help ease budget worries, and Federal Way is well positioned to expand its business base and appeal to those that need access to the two ports and a strong multicultural community. Economic development became the second-highest priority for the city leaders.

The third highest priority was reducing homelessness. Some council members have privately expressed frustration that Ferrell goes in too many directions at once and too frequently reacts to the political issue of the day rather than focusing on follow through. The city’s position on the needs of the homeless has evolved from “run them out of town” of four years ago, to establishing a mothers and children initiative a year ago, to getting a local church to provide temporary housing this winter, while asking the state Legislature for $100,000. But few council members have been willing to add compassion to the options for all homeless people, and the issue has lacked an overall plan of action.

The council made clear it wants to see a broader plan of action that includes multi-response options. Ferrell noted that was his goal and he was headed in that direction. He also resurfaced a city employment possibility for those in need.

The process used by the mayor and council in its retreat this year would have been more likely seen in a council-manager form of government, rather than our strong-mayor form. The committee to set the format for the day included Deputy Mayor Honda and council members Dini Duclos and Johnson. It likely reflects much of Duclos’ thinking as she is the only council member left from the council-manager days. But with many remnants of the former government structure still in place, and with the need for these eight elected officials to learn how to agree and disagree, the process worked well. But the form of government is not eight equal elected officials. It is two separate, though co-equal, branches of government. The relationship is actually seven council members in one branch and one mayor heading the other.

And Ferrell has shown an interest in embracing more of the strong-mayor style he appeared to put off while Jeanne Burbidge remained on the council.

The process worked this time. The mayor and council reached some agreements, and now we can watch for the results as an interesting year of adjustment starts to unfold.

Federal Way resident Bob Roegner is a former mayor of Auburn and retired public official. He can be reached at bjroegner@comcast.net.

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