Like you, I prefer a new South end firehouse to an old firehouse. Like you, I want new fire trucks and new fire equipment. But this levy is bigger than simply financing a new South end firehouse and a new fire truck.
This levy is about how the city prioritizes its tax receipts and, therefore, how it manages its budget. The Council/staff should prioritize its budget like many Islanders prioritize their household budgets. I think this levy is a mandate as to how the Council manages its finances, i.e., your money.
In 2003, a forward-thinking Council adopted the policy to finance fire trucks with a sinking fund. Until recently, city councils respected the wisdom of prioritizing fire trucks by annually contributing to this sinking fund. The sinking fund is no different from a 529 account that you may make monthly contributions to for the predictable college bills. Unfortunately, over the past couple of years, the Council chose to fund a list of discretionary products and services instead of prioritizing the fire truck sinking fund.
The levy vote coincidently happens as our last biennial budget closes and as we enter into the next biennial budget planning cycle. This levy will have huge budget implications if the levy fails. If the levy is approved, the Council and staff will continue its unsustainable budget practices. Practices of funding discretionary projects and services before projects and services that are of much higher priority, i.e., those projects and services that are necessary for the city to function.
Islanders are not immune to our very slow recovery. The average Mercer Island home sales price decreased 2.4 percent from 2011 to 2012. This levy makes the misprioritization of funds glaringly obvious. Be informed: if this levy passes, Islanders give tacit approval to develop the next budget in the same manner as past budgets. Discretionary projects and services first, then priority projects and services from what remains or claim taxes need raised.
The Council balanced its last biennial budget by raising taxes while funding and expanding discretionary projects and services. In reality, the Council has plenty of money to pay for fire trucks. There are hundreds of thousands of dollars in many discretionary funds.
In November 2011, the Council raised property taxes, utility connection charges, emergency medical service tax, Norcom tax and even created new taxes: technology tax, ambulance service tax and mileage reimbursement tax. All while planning to hire a new communications coordinator and a new Sustainability Task Force coordinator. The city has plenty of money in its coffers: $656k in Sewer Lake Line Savings, $200k from a canceled water fountain project, $280k in the Arts Fund, $300k in the Revenue Stabilization Fund (different than the mandated contingency fund) and $500k in the Beautification Fund. This is in addition to the huge sales receipts we’ll receive from downtown construction projects such as the Aviara Apartments, followed by the Mercer Phase II Apartments, followed by the Legacy Apartments.
This levy is not about firehouses and fire trucks. The city has plenty of money to pay for fire trucks. This levy is about how the city prioritizes your tax dollars. A no vote is a vote for budget reform — a budget we will adopt Nov. 19, 2012, that will shape policy until December 2014.
Mike Cero is a Mercer Island City Councilmember.