Council pushes back on mayor’s budget

The council showed they wouldn’t be intimidated as they stood up to mayor.

Bob Roegner

Bob Roegner

The city has a budget for 2019-20, but just two weeks after being outmaneuvered by Mayor Jim Ferrell, the City Council pushed back and now has a budget that reflects more, but not all, of their priorities.

At issue was $26,000 to support the Housing Coalition and $25,000 to support the Youth Action Committee, and $161,000 for additional computer support staffing. Minuscule amounts in a budget of $48 million. But a trio of council members — Hoang Tran, Jesse Johnson and Martin Moore — hoping to be joined by Susan Honda as the fourth vote, were prepared to vote down the budget and set debate over for two weeks to make their point.

The council acknowledged that the budget was “heavy on law and order” which is consistent with Ferrell’s priorities, but short on “prevention,” which has more appeal among council members. Tran questioned “does this budget reflect our priorities,” which lean toward helping the homeless and providing alternatives for youth as a way to combat crime. With Ferrell and the police chief stating crime was down, prevention made more sense to council members.

For the last four years, Ferrell and the council have tiptoed around the negative fiscal impact of the Performing Arts and Events Center, and have even attacked those who question its approval as naysayers. But this council was less shy, stating PAEC debt is at $7.4 million, and questioned whether the city would be prepared to financially withstand a recession. Council member Mark Koppang was more direct, “it’s the PAEC,” when identifying the fiscal culprit. Only Ferrell and council members Moore and Dini Duclos remain from those who supported building the PAEC. Council members do recognize the PAEC is a reality and will have to be settled, and unless the council is willing to consider cuts, additional revenue may be needed. Some council members believe it was past spending, including the PAEC, that has put the city in this position.

But some in the community were just glad to finally hear the admission, and so far have resisted the “I told you so” moment, regarding the flawed financial plan, with the naming rights still unsold and tax credit money coming in significantly below expectations.

This budget meeting was a maturing moment for the council in their quest to balance their relationship with Ferrell, and has been coming for a long time. Ferrell could have avoided this by listening to the council’s priorities that have been clear since last February. But he didn’t, and tried to push his own agenda when common ground was clearly available. Earlier the council had backtracked on taking money from the police budget after a small number of residents opposed the idea. Ferrell continued to say he had tried to find the $50,000, but it was impossible without laying someone off.

But some council members felt if he could add a communications person on his staff at $65,000, then he should be able to find $50,000 for their priority, and simply didn’t believe him. He again told the council that he had used zero based budgeting “principles,” but zero based budgeting is a year-round management tool to improve overall efficiency, including justification of expenditures. It is not a one-time budget method, and his insertion of the word “principles” was a clue that caused council members’ trust to slip.

It actually appears Ferrell just went to each of the four biggest departments and gave them financial goals for the budget cycle, rather then establish any ongoing management process that connects city goals to fiscal impact, which is what some council members really wanted. By asserting the requirement to lay someone off if the council changed his budget, Ferrell overplayed his hand, because no lay-off should be needed to approve the two council additions. City attorney Ryan Call also upped the anti and appeared to try and intimidate the council by suggesting council members could be recalled if they didn’t pass the budget. But that was a political reaction to a legal question and didn’t help the debate. The council simply wanted to know if they could schedule another meeting, as they have up until Dec. 31 to approve the budget. An additional meeting was clearly possible. Ferrell continued to play both mayor and eighth council member, which hampered the situation.

But after questioning the finance director about end-of-the-year closeouts, when budgeted non-expenditures are finalized and money is available for redistribution, the council decided to transfer the $51,000 out of the police budget, and restore it in April.

Johnson did not appear to withdraw his earlier recusal, and helped lead the debate to change Ferrell’s budget. Neither Ferrell nor the city attorney challenged his participation.

As it turned out, Koppang became the key vote, with Honda joining once replenishment to police was assured. Lydia Assefa-Dawson also became a yes vote after she successfully added the second amendment to include the housing issue, with Duclos and Moore also supporting the new amended budget. Tran and Johnson still voted no even though they got the two main programs they wanted, because they still wanted the $161,000 for two computer support staff. But that is part of learning when to “hold em and fold em,” because I suspect those two staff positions will easily win favor in April.

The council still needs to have a better understanding of the budget and what questions to ask, but they grew up a lot in two weeks. They learned how to work together in the heat of debate and won the last round as the budget is closer to their priorities. Ferrell’s budget remained mostly as he presented it. But the council showed they wouldn’t be intimidated as they stood up to Ferrell and established that if pushed hard enough they will push back. Ferrell can also learn from it, if he will. Next time, take the council and their priorities seriously.

Everyone could have gotten what they wanted if Ferrell had simply put $50,000 in the budget for the two council priorities. But instead the last six weeks have shown a drifting away of trust in Ferrell. Next year should be very interesting to watch.

Federal Way resident Bob Roegner is a former mayor of Auburn. Contact bjroegner@comcast.net.

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