What would you do in the City Council’s shoes?

If you were on the Federal Way City Council and had a vote this fall in the 2019-20 city budget, what would be your primary focus? Looking for more revenue, which translates to more taxes and higher fees? Or taking a closer look at current spending for areas where cuts or efficiencies might be possible?

The public has already made some suggestions, and they will have more as the process unfolds.

There are many reasons that the city has found itself in this fiscal dilemma. The biggest reason is probably the Performing Arts and Event Center (PAEC), as the financial plan did not work out the way Mayor Jim Ferrell and other backers had hoped. Less money in the new market tax credits and no sale of the naming rights yet. But simply spending too much was also to blame. Then adding five new police officers that will become a full $500,000 financial responsibility for the city in the next two years further contributed to the problem.

Passage of the utility tax was followed by a discussion about fees on storage facilities. It is clear Ferrell and a majority of the council are headed right past discussions about cuts and efficiency improvements toward more taxes and increases in fees.

As a council member, you won’t have as good of a command of the facts and figures as the finance director or the department heads. They know their budget better than you ever will, and they want or need more money. As a council member, how do you retain the public trust with their money, even if new revenue is still needed to get out of this self-inflicted fiscal predicament?

How much do you have to make up? The finance director says about $1 million. Ferrell said he thought that approximately half of that could be gained through the SCORE jail facility using a different formula that would lower the city’s cost. If true and only about $500,000 is needed, then start looking at the budget to find areas to cut. Interestingly, and it’s probably just a coincidence, but the subsidy for the PAEC for this year is almost that much at $454,000. But let’s look at other possibilities.

Do your homework and start asking questions in some of the following areas. If you find $500,000 in the budget, balancing gets easier, but the mayor and department heads will have many reasons why they oppose cuts.

Start with passing a resolution that establishes a hiring freeze on all vacant positions and identifies the criteria for essential positions to be filled. Any position that does not meet the criteria established by the council would have to go through a council committee and be voted on by the full council. Some positions take two to three months to fill anyway, and you can capture monthly salary savings. More important, it sends a message to the public, mayor and staff that you are taking the budget and the public’s pocketbook seriously.

A casual review of 135 vacancies from November 2016 through April 2018 shows several positions, while likely needed, may not have been urgent in their need. Several administrative assistant positions in different departments, including one in the mayor’s office, along with positions for workers in streets, maintenance, water, planning, parks and recreation, arts and events, construction and seasonal workers were filled. About 40 of the positions are part-time staff or instructors to support the Community Center. But of the remaining full-time positions, were they all absolutely essential enough to be filled urgently? Another position in the mayor’s office was filled after the election, but before the announcement by Ferrell that he wanted a new tax. That makes any expression of concern about the public’s pocketbook sound disingenuous.

At $30,000 to $50,000 per position, it wouldn’t take long to save a large amount toward that $500,000 and hope the mayor is right about the SCORE jail formula saving the rest. If you are going to convince the public of the additional financial need, then public trust is crucial. The review also revealed another area to question. If the financial shortfall was so bad, why was the city looking for interns in economic development, planning, finance and at the PAEC? Interns are a great idea and they don’t cost much, usually less than $15 per hour for part-time work. Even if funded by grants, as some of the positions were, they should be considered when the coffers are full, not when you have raised taxes and want even more money – especially when the first intern hired last winter was Ferrell’s former campaign manager. Even though he has left the city, it gives the appearance that decisions are made more for political reasons, and causes the public to question other decisions. Are those positions truly essential?

Next look at all outside consultants to see if some of the work can be done in-house. Public works, planning, parks and recreation are good places to start. The primary reason for an outside consultant is unique expertise that you don’t need year-round.

Then look at overtime in all departments. How is it being managed? In most departments, it is seasonal; if not, what were the causes? The police department is usually the biggest user of overtime and statistics – 2017 demonstrates that, while also showing overtime in other departments. Even though crime was down last year, as well as for the past five years, the council received a grant to add five new officers. How will the addition of those officers reduce overtime? Much of the overtime is covered by contract, which is why a few usually get most of the overtime. But that also results in tired officers. If adding the new officers doesn’t reduce overtime or result in better use of personnel, then add a proviso to the 2019-20 police budget to report back to the council with a plan on how to keep overtime under control.

Other areas are fleet maintenance. The city owns a lot of vehicles. Has the city purchased any electric vehicles? According to the state Department of Enterprise Services, electric vehicles are less expensive over the long run and are better for the environment. Could this be an area for savings? Ask for a report on the savings.

The mayor wants money for employee salaries, but the city has not done a salary study in several years. That’s on purpose, because they know it would take a lot more money to catch up with current salary inequities. With a couple of exceptions, the majority of city employees I deal with are hard working professionals who earn their paycheck every day. They should be compensated fairly. But if Ferrell is going to use employees’ hard work and dedication as a lure to try and guilt the council and public into paying more in taxes, then be honest about it; commission a salary study and provide data. It can be implemented in stages if necessary. But the other possible reason for the lure is that the police contract is also up and Ferrell, along with some council members, court the Police Guild politically. A study would help ensure that money intended for civilians would go to them.

Ferrell appears to want Centerstage Theatre out of the budget for two reasons: to save the $100,000 he is short for the college initiative and to encourage more use of the PAEC, rather than the Knutzen Family Theatre at Dumas Bay.

Ferrell is fond of saying to the public “we work for you.” But, no hiring freeze, an intern program, new staff in the mayor’s office, and while the mayor’s pay raise was awarded by the salary commission, Ferrell is smart enough to know that the optics are awful if gaining the public’s trust is your goal. Watch to see what the mayor and council do with your money. Will they seriously consider cuts or freezing positions? Will they actually listen to public ideas? Will they take steps to retain or regain your confidence? If not, there are city council seats up for election next year.

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