Is the new Federal Way City Council starting to mature?

On the heels of an unpopular vote to increase the utility tax, the City Council had its first public discussion on the 2019-20 budget last week amid concern about different options to manage the city’s current fiscal situation. With a possible $1 million shortfall and the utility tax tied up in a lawsuit, the headline options were: find more money through new fees, such as on storage buildings; reconsider allowing marijuana stores in the city limits; or recruit more new business.

Not every council member agreed with the premise of the need for more money, and an undercurrent of disagreement was evident as the council seemed to take steps to establish itself as an equal political balance to Mayor Jim Ferrell. Whether those first steps become more obvious as the council starts to adjust to the changes brought by two new council members will determine the mayor-council relationship for the next eighteen months. Ferrell dominated the previous council’s discussions and freely engaged in any topic he wanted to push, as if he was an eighth council member – rarely turning over the gavel when wishing to speak.

He appeared more compatible with their conservative views,and was rarely challenged on policy issues. His previous harsh homeless policy was applauded by some council members, who – with two new members – now want a more balanced solution.

New council members Hoang Tran and Jesse Johnson have raised different points of view on how to respond to budget issues and received support from Deputy Mayor Susan Honda.

Council member Dini Duclos is the last council member from the former council-manager form of government and still refers to city staff as “our staff.” The city staff is decidedly not “our staff;” they are the mayor’s staff and are expected to push his agenda. And while some may harbor some unhappiness with Ferrell for favoring his own office financially over their needs, they will support his agenda of wanting new money because it is the only way for them to get the tools they need to run their departments. With the new Performing Arts and Events Center (PAEC) being subsidized at $454,000 for this year, along with some subsidy in future years, and the full $500,000 for new police added by a grant, due in future years, City Hall faces choices.

Duclos and some of the other returning council members continue to show support for Ferrell’s desire for more money because they went along with the expenses that contributed to the situation.

Beneath the surface, council members were showing initial signs of wanting a more equal playing field with Ferrell but still aren’t sure how to go about it.

New council member Tran has spoken of wanting more efficiency in city government so that the council can avoid a repeat of the utility tax vote and wanted zero-based budgeting as the starting point for the council. Tran had based his support for the utility tax on the understanding that the city would use a zero-based budgeting approach.

Then the council got a political lesson from Ferrell through the city attorney and finance director.

The finance director announced that zero-based budgeting would be done internally by the city staff and mayor, which could prevent the council and the public from seeing how each bottom line was built up to a total recommended by the mayor. The council seemed to not grasp the subtle push back or what to do about it. While it may feel like the wolf guarding the hen house, under the law the mayor can go through any internal process he desires as long as he presents his budget on the legally required schedule. The council has no role in the budget preparation. Council members say the mayor has agreed to use a zero-based budget approach. Typically, mayor’s use a “same as last year ” approach and add inflation.

But the City Council has the authority to establish any kind of process they want to review Ferrell’s recommendations once he submits his budget. Some had thought they were getting a public zero-based budget approach. But as mayor, Ferrell is the one reviewing what his staff wants and he is likely to go for higher amounts – not lower – to keep the pressure on for more revenue. He could make cuts or look for efficiencies, but that would be counter to the position he has taken so far and would undermine his political message and strategy.

Some members the council, including Johnson, thought that a hiring freeze was going to be implemented and only “essential “city positions would be filled. But apparently that lacked a majority of votes on the council and Ferrell is the person deciding which positions are “essential.” The council has the authority to establish a maximum number of full- and part-time city positions and also establish criteria by which positions can be filled. But absent a majority on the policy, it leaves Ferrell in control of areas the council could otherwise determine.

In the strong-mayor form of government the mayor has most of the power. But the one big power the council has is the budget, and they can add all sorts of budget provisos if they choose.

Over the next several budget workshops leading up to the serious debates in the fall, city staff will answer every question a council member or citizen asks, and it will be interesting to see how the new council members influence the budget. But they have already sent a message that they want more of a check and balance.

The City Council can still require any approach they want to review Ferrell’s budget , but there may not be enough votes to back up and ask departments to start at zero, as a majority may still want additional tax and fee revenue.

The other truism in the zero-based budget approach is that only a couple of council members really know enough about the budget to see where improvements could be made. Each city department head knows their budget better than any city council member, and they are likely to stay on message of needing more money for public safety, and you won’t hear much about the PAEC subsidy, cuts or new found efficiencies.

The election of two new council members over candidates favored by Ferrell should be seen as a message. If other council members who are up for election next year start to consider the implications we may see more political balance between the mayor and council as the budget process unfolds.

Taxes, fees and priorities along with a political frame work for next year’s elections will be set by whoever gets four votes from council members. In particular watch Lydia Assefa-Dawson, Martin Moore and Mark Koppang. Koppang and Moore have been supporters of Ferrell. Will they step out of his shadow?

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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