Council approves 2023-24 biennial budget; delays decision on code amendments for undergrounding utilities

Mayor Pro Tem Bryan Wahl discusses the Mountlake Terrace budget Monday night.

The Mountlake Terrace City Council Monday night unanimously approved the city’s 2023-24 biennial budget.

The council also agreed to delay consideration of a staff proposal to amend city code regarding the undergrounding of utilities. Councilmembers said they wanted more information on various options available that might lessen the proposal’s financial impact on residents.

The approved City of Mountlake Terrace biennial budget for 2023-24, with comparisons to past years’ budgets.

Mayor Pro Tem Bryan Wahl thanked staff for their work on the budget, which was prepared amid staff shortages that included the resignation of City Manager Scott Hugill for health reasons.

But Wahl also echoed concerns expressed by Councilmember Laura Sonmore during Monday night’s meeting, noting while the city’s budget “is balanced and in the black for six years,” the council needs to keep its eyes on long-term budget planning to ensure future stability.

“In 10 years, we’re going to be cutting it close,” Wahl said. “That’s a concern that we need to be aware of…and recognize the challenges we face beyond the six years. ”

The budget designates $775,395 to be spent over the biennium from the city’s allocation of federal COVID recovery dollars through the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA). The ARPA spending includes:

– $75,000 to fund an IT strategic plan and structural evalation consultant.

– $27,497 for a new police community services officer (the position would be funded through the general fund after two years).

– $100,000 for a consultant to perform an economic conditions/market analysis.

– $98,000 to pay for consulting services to assist the newly formed Mountlake Terrace and Brier Chamber of Commerce.

– $123,000 in matching funds for a grant to be used for recruiting and retaining child care workers.

– $171,957 to add a special events coordinator (this position would also be funded through the general fund beyond 2024).

– $20,000 for a dedicated scholarship fund for children ages 0-17 to attend city-sponsored camps and classes.

– $100,000 to create a housing action plan, although this money may not be spent if grant money is obtained.

– $30,000 for a consultant to prepare a strategic work for the city’s new diversity, equipty and inclusion commission (DEIC) as well as to fund events and meetings as needed.

The City of Mountlake Terrace received a total of $5,962,279 through ARPA, and the council is set to begin discussing early next year how to spend the remaining approximately $4.7 million of COVID relief funds. The council earlier allocated up to $500,000 of ARPA money to help residents and business owners with past-due utility bills.

The 2023-24 biennial budget also includes a range of new expenses that will be covered through the city’s general fund. Among them is a new communications manager position that will replace the existing communications specialist job. Creation of the communications manager  — along with the new special events coordinator — is aimed at addressing the hole created by the departure of long-time City Clerk and Community Relations Director Virginia Clough in August . When Clough left, the city decided to create separate city city clerk and communications positions to absorb her many duties.

The general fund budget also includes creation of a boards and commissions funding pool of $110,000 over two years — with $60,000 allocated for the arts commission, $20,000 for the planning commission and $30,000 for the recreation, parks and advisory commission. Assistant City Manager Stephen Clifton noted that based on council discussion last week, these funding amounts are “estimated needs” for each commission, and the plan is to place the funds under the city manager’s department. “These accounts are subject to change and not intended to be restricted…to any one board or commission,” Clifton said. The funds can be used for community outreach and events as well as training, conferences and travel, he added.

There was one change from the council’s previous discussion: a $20,000 biennial increase in the originally proposed $40,000 arts commission allocation to cover updating the city’s arts and culture plan.

The listed board and commission amounts are for two years only; the plan is to have boards and commissions submit requested dollar amounts for city funding every two years to assists with biennial budget preparation.

Councilmember Steve Woodard commented on the optics of the board and commission funding pool coming from the general fund — which is viewed as an ongoing expense — while the DEIC funding was coming from one-time ARPA dollars.

“If we are committing this money for all of the commissions, (are) we actually jeopardize the contribution that is assigned to the DEIC by leaving them in the ARPA?” Woodard asked, adding he believed all four commissions should receive funding from the city’s general fund.

Clifton explained that when the the city manager’s office first presented the city budget in November, the DEIC draft allocation of $30,000 annually was the only funding requested from a city board or commission. “We saw a nexus between ARPA (funding) and the DEIC as it relates to the community,” Clifton said.

Since that initial DEIC request was presented, the city council has requested funding for other boards and commissions, Clifton added. The funding could come from either the general fund or ARPA, Clifton said.

Addressing Woodard’s concerns, Mayor Kyoko Matsumoto Wright noted that all boards and commissions will be asked to submit ongoing requests for funding before the next biennial budget is prepared. “Everybody gets a clean slate in two years,” she said.

During a public hearing on the budget, only one citizen commented — Mountlake Terrace resident Dale Jeremiah. He thanked the council for providing $700,000 in the budget to provide a new roof and HVAC system for Ballinger Park’s Mickey Corso Clubhouse, which houses the Mountlake Terrace Community Senior Center.

You can see Monday’s complete budget presentation, which includes more details, here.

Associate Planner Jonathan Morales speaks about utility undergrounding code amendments.

Regarding city code amendments for the undergrounding of utilities, Associate Planner Jonathan Morales explained — as he did during the council’s Dec. 1 work/study session — that the proposed changes are intended to clarify requirements, including specific exemptions, for undergrounding of power and other utility lines in existing single-family dwellings in the Town Center as well as other city zones.

A public hearing was held on the topic but no one chose to offer comments.

Under current city code, undergrounding is required in any city zone when new, replaced, relocated, upgraded and/or extended electrical service is provided to any property. The trigger for any property includes moving the electrical mast, which contains the wires that transfer power from the city’s overhead power distribution system to a home. Undergrounding isn’t required for extension of distribution lines when the nearest point of connection to a single-family property is overhead and the poles are greater than 100 feet from the property line or for utility lines over 20,000 volts.

Under the proposed code amendments, undergrounding utilities would be required in all Town Center zones, except in the case of life safety hazards. Offering an exception for life safety hazards would permit Town Center homewners to upgrade their electrical panel without requiring utility undergrounding. This is important because many Mountlake Terrace homes still have hazardous electrical panels that were manufactured by Zinsco and popular during the 1970s. The panels, known to increase the risk of electrical fires, were part of a major recall and lawsuit in 2002 and the company is no longer in business.

In all other city zones, undergrounding would be required in two instances: for new single-family residential developments or when the valuation for a substantial improvement to an existing single-family home is 50% or more of home’s assessed value, according to the Snohomish County Assessor’s Office.

That 50% threshold would only apply to the value of the structure itself and not the combined value of the structure and property, and that was a point of discussion for councilmembers Monday night. Given the increasing costs of home remodeling, more homeowners may be likely to reach that 50% threshhold and be required to underground their utilities at an added expenses, Councilmembers Woodard and Rick Ryan noted.

Ryan proposed an amendment to the staff proposal to raise the threshhold to apply to the combined structure and property, seconded by Woodard. However, after further discussion the council decided to postpone the matter indefinitely so city staff would have time to conduct additional research on various options available to the council.

— By Teresa Wippel












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