At the mayor-council retreat two weeks ago, there was a brief, but telling, exchange between Mayor Jim Ferrell and council member Dini Duclos over how to pay for the nine police officers that both sides want to fund. It appeared the politics of how the cost gets paid, who gets credit, or blamed, reared its election-year head. The “who pays” is already decided … it’s you, the taxpayer! Congratulations!
Ferrell had proposed an addendum to his own budget to pay for nine new police officers over the next two years with an array of tax and fee options, this despite the fact that crime has held relatively constant for the last several years and that the police chief had only requested two additional officers, both of which Ferrell had denied. Ferrell’s former chief of staff, Brian Wilson, in speaking on the topic, had justified the request for nine officers based on local and regional statistics on violent crime, even though the public has been repeatedly told the suspects in last year’s series of local murders were in jail on other charges. The unusual phrase “perception of safety” was also part of the justification. The nine officers are somewhat illusionary as they would be hired over two years and would need the support of a federal grant, along with more taxes in 2019-20 to sustain them. When the first hires would occur also seems to be a moving target.
Ferrell is up for election this year and likely needed to make sure he could add public safety to his platform. As part of the budget discussions last fall, Ferrell said his preferred option for funding the additional police was taxing Lakehaven Utility District. Lakehaven opposed that idea and is concerned about its rate payers. The City Council supported adding $15 to the car tab fee until several residents attended a recent council meeting and opposed the idea. Nobody wants more tax burden, but the mayor and council want more police.
At the mayor-council retreat, Ferrell further prodded council members to support his proposal on Lakehaven. During discussions, Ferrell mentioned the city could only afford two additional police at this time. Some council members, and those in the audience, thought Ferrell was suggesting that if the council didn’t follow his recommendation, and only two officers, rather than nine, were hired, the blame would fall on the council and not him.
At the Feb. 7 council meeting, no council member made a motion to add the car tab fee. That leaves few options, although further discussions will occur. It is illustrative that neither the mayor nor council has suggested any cuts in the budget to make up the difference and have effectively boxed themselves into a trap of their own making.
Here’s the politics, however. Had the council passed the car tab fee, the mayor and council would have received credit for cops but blame for taxes. If they pass the tax on to Lakehaven’s governing board, however, and then Lakehaven passes the tax on to its customers, then the thought in City Hall is that Lakehaven will get the blame for the increase. To 2017 candidates Ferrell, and council members Martin Moore, Bob Celski and Susan Honda, credit or blame in an election year is very important.
Ferrell and some council members point out that Lakehaven officials do not have to pass along the additional cost, suggesting they could absorb it. That would require Lakehaven to take money from reserves set aside for capital projects, however. City Hall doesn’t like to absorb other governments’ expenses, and it seems naive to think Lakehaven would be willing to take the political blame from voters for the actions of the mayor and council. Rate payers and taxpayers are all the same people.
If the City Council does eventually pass the utility tax over Lakehaven’s objections, what will Lakehaven do? Would they file a lawsuit? Possibly, but since two other utilities, Highline and Tacoma, also serve Federal Way, Lakehaven may get some additional support.
My guess is that, at a minimum, the top of your utility bill would have a big, bold heading in bright red that says, “This utility increase brought to you by Mayor Jim Ferrell and council members Martin Moore, Bob Celski, Susan Honda, Jeanne Burbidge, Dini Duclos, Lydia Assefa-Dawson and Mark Koppang.”
More to this story later.
Federal Way resident Bob Roegner is a former mayor of Auburn and retired government official. He can be reached at email@example.com.