Due to budget cuts, the city of Mercer Island recently announced that it will cancel several events, including the Leap for Green Sustainability Fair, Community Campout, All-Island Track Meet and its largest and longest-running Summer Celebration.
Following the November 2018 failure of the Proposition 1 levy measure, the city “regrettably had to make a number of reductions in non-essential programs and services in order to balance the 2019-2020 Biennial Budget,” according to a press release sent Jan. 25.
Many of these initial cuts were borne by two departments: Youth and Family Services, and Parks and Recreation. Some cuts were temporarily softened with donations or one-time fund transfers.
Parks and Recreation ended its entire lifeguard program, shrank senior health services and canceled special events such as Movies in the Park, Spring Egg Hunt and the Holiday Tree Lighting/Firehouse Munch. Out of necessity due to staff attrition, the cuts were implemented starting Jan. 1, 2019, and also include reduced hours and full Sunday closures at the Community Center.
In subsequent discussions, the city council determined even deeper cuts were necessary to lessen the impact of a long-term deficit that’s still projected to reach $4 million by the time the next budget is drafted in late 2020. As a result, city spending will be trimmed by an additional $1.2 million in 2019-2020, and the majority of further reductions will come from the Parks and Recreation Department.
The next round of proposed cuts is expected to impact a larger number of residents as it covers many annual community events, including Summer Celebration. The family-friendly event is a regionally known, multi-day festival that draws some 25,000 attendees to a wide range of activities for all ages and interests. The well-loved event includes a Grand Parade (with 50-70 entries, including marching bands), a major fireworks show and dozens of public performances throughout the weekend. Other typical highlights are hands-on arts and crafts activities, a kids’ inflatable fun zone, skateboard competitions, boat rides around the Island, a car show, more than 100 booths for vendors and other organizations and 15 food trucks.
Both full-time staff positions largely responsible for planning and orchestrating the multi-day event were vacated prior to the November 2018 election, and with the failure of the levy, there is insufficient funding to refill them.
The two vacated positions had a wide range of responsibilities leading up to Summer Celebration, which included developing the annual theme, coordinating contracts and permitting, negotiating the fireworks display and planning the rest of the weekend schedule, along with marketing and community relations, and recruiting vendors, food trucks and entertainers.
During Summer Celebration, they were also responsible for planning street closures, barricades, crowd control, parking and transportation, ensuring adequate emergency services, first aid, risk management and overnight security, coordinating participation of all city departments, scheduling and overseeing day-of-event volunteers and supervising complete clean-up and restoration of event facilities and park lands.
Even accounting for modest annual revenues of about $25,000, Summer Celebration costs the city nearly $115,000 to produce, and requires more than 1,400 hours of staff time throughout the weekend from many departments in direct support of the event.
While volunteers are vital in supporting many day-of-event aspects, the city believes a professional, paid coordinating staff is essential to produce a safe, high-quality, multi-day entertainment event of this complexity, according to its press release.
“Our focus is on preserving core services that serve the greatest number of community members. The maintenance and safety of our parks, playgrounds and trails remains our top priority,” stated Parks and Recreation director Jessi Bon.
Remaining recreation staff will assume responsibility for 2019 events still on the calendar. The events will be listed in the 2019 Spring/Summer Recreation Guide available in March at www.mercergov.org/Parks.
The reductions will be finalized at the council’s annual planning session (Feb. 1 and 2), then implemented gradually throughout the remainder of the year.
The city continues to project a significant deficit starting in 2021 which will necessitate future service and staffing reductions. The city also is working with outside consultants on a fiscal sustainability plan to identify the best solutions to fund critical operations and find efficiencies.
The political action committee Mercer Islanders for Sustainable Spending (MIforSS) is continuing to encourage the city to pursue efficiencies, rather than cuts, and criticized the city’s plan to save money.
“The Council and City Manager in close coordination with Directors do not need to hire $220,000 in consultants to identify tier 1 efficiencies,” according to an MIforSS press release. “Unnecessary enhancements actually make the city more inefficient rather than more efficient and incurs more pain on its citizens than necessary. Few organizations would see a 1 percent reduction over two years as little more than housekeeping.”