Mercer Island City Council passes scaled back budget

The city manager was instructed to look for an additional $1.2 million in cuts.

Image via www.SeniorLiving.org

Image via www.SeniorLiving.org

Update: The council passed the 2019-2020 budget with a unanimous vote on Dec. 4, also directing the city manager to present a plan for more budget cuts no later than June 2019.

After hearing impassioned pleas to restore funding for some programs reduced in its 2019-2020 proposed budget, the Mercer Island City Council went the opposite direction at its Nov. 20 meeting, instructing the city manager to make even more cuts.

The council was set to adopt the budget at its Dec. 4 meeting, and is making financial decisions in light of the failure of Proposition 1 in November. The ballot measure, which failed with a 57.5 percent “No” vote, would have maintained current service levels.

Councilmembers said the city is facing a fiscal cliff in 2020. They wanted to have a budget that was more sustainable for the future, instead of relying on one-time money and reserves to balance the biennium.

“There are no efficiencies that make up for this kind of deficit,” said Deputy Mayor Salim Nice.

The council told city manager Julie Underwood to explore $1.2 million in additional cuts, and Underwood said she was “personally very supportive” of the idea, though it was “a complete surprise to the staff.”

She noted that the city is facing a “very significant deficit,” and was planning to use about $2 million in one-time money and make $1 million in cuts. Councilmember Bruce Bassett suggested that those figures should be switched.

“I don’t know how we’re going to face the future without making changes now,” Underwood said. “I’m obviously disappointed with the outcome [of the election] because I believe it is totally going to change our quality of life on the Island. But the community has spoken, and I respect the community’s decision.”

The council directed staff to reduce the amount of one-time resources used to balance the 2019-2020 General Fund budget from $2 million to $800,000.

According to the council’s Dec. 4 agenda bill, “the city is at the beginning of defining a ‘new normal’ given the failure of Proposition 1.”

Councilmember Wendy Weiker noted that “just because one levy didn’t pass doesn’t mean another one can’t pass,” and tried several avenues to restore funding for one of the city’s most beloved programs, mental health counseling in Mercer Island schools provided by the department of Youth and Family Services.

There are currently four counselors for elementary students — one at each of the Island’s four elementary schools — and the proposed budget has that number shrinking down to three in the next school year and two the following year.

Weiker’s motions to restore the full funding failed. The council may look to the Mercer Island School District for a different cost sharing model for the counselors and other budget items, including Mary Wayte Pool maintenance and the school resource officer.

The council’s agenda bill also notes that “there can be nothing sacred in terms of cuts and measures considered by the council because the projected deficits in 2021-2022 are significantly greater.”

“I have never been in a council room that feels as heavy as this one does right now,” Mayor Debbie Bertlin said. “But I also respect the decision that the voters have made, [and] I respect future councils that come.”

Following the Nov. 20 meeting, the council received a letter from Jody Kris, board president of the Mercer Island Youth and Family Services Foundation, with a temporary solution.

The foundation has pledged to provide the funding needed to restore the geriatric specialist from half-time to full-time status in 2019-2020 (which was one of the other proposed cuts), and will work toward identifying funding to restore the elementary school counselor reductions in 2019-2020.

The city is planning to use the Financial Sustainability Plan, which will be kicked off on Dec. 18, to guide the council and staff in making difficult decisions regarding service levels in 2019-2020. The city may also look to use outside consultants to address the “efficiency first” statements made by the “No on Prop 1” campaign.

The council did, however, decide to restore funding for a police patrol officer, by eliminating a recreation specialist position.

See www.mercergov.org for more.

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