City delays budget engagement process
In July, the city of Mercer Island began a public engagement process to share information about the city’s financial challenges with the community and to seek public input on how best to balance the budget.
While the current 2017-2018 budget has been temporarily balanced using a one-time surplus, the city is projecting significant deficits starting in 2019. This includes the General Fund, which pays for a wide range of city services such as park maintenance, police and fire services and special events, as well as the Youth and Family Services Fund, which supports school counselors, emergency family assistance and employment assistance programs.
At its Sept. 5 meeting, the City Council decided to extend the public engagement plan into 2018 to allow more time to inform and educate the community. A key outreach component is the formation of a Community Advisory Group (CAG) appointed by the city manager to review the data, discuss the challenges and solutions and provide a recommendation. CAG meetings will be widely advertised and open to all.
Now that a revised engagement calendar has been set, the city manager has reopened recruitment for volunteers interested in serving on the CAG and strives to appoint a broad-based, diverse group of citizens. Residents are invited to apply before Oct. 27. Read more about the history of this issue, including links to budget documents and a schedule of upcoming meetings at www.mercergov.org/FinancialChallenges.
The city is also piloting a new technology that allows interested residents to join a moderated, community meeting by telephone or computer, providing a new option for those who are unable to attend in-person. Participants may ask questions in real-time, and a recording of the event is available after.
An interactive “Telephone Town Hall” meeting covering financial issues is set for 7-8 p.m. on Oct. 11. Online registration will open soon.
City departments collaborate to help low-income residents with water bills
Summer usually brings an increase in the number of residents unable to pay their water bills.
“We see this jump every year, as the weather heats up and water usage climbs,” said Suzanne Riddell, utility billing supervisor with the city of Mercer Island’s Finance Department.
But there is help available. The city has a discount program for low-income residents. Qualifying accounts are able to secure a 75 percent reduction on most portions of their bill — currently, 42 people are enrolled, mostly seniors on fixed incomes. The city’s Youth and Family Services Department (YFS) contributes by offering assistance to Islanders in filling out the discount application.
“When we can take care of that situation for an individual, it relieves a big stress in their life,” said Cheryl Manriquez, family support and employment coordinator.
A social worker and employment counselor, Manriquez can help residents with more than their water bill.
“We can take a close look at their whole financial picture and their needs, be it employment assistance, food, clothing, medical care or something else, and we work in partnership with folks to help them address their family’s needs,” she said.
She credits Riddell with steering late-paying utility customers her way.
“The close connection between the city’s finance and YFS departments reflects how we both share the same mission of providing outstanding services to Mercer Island residents,” she said.