Council tackles MLT budget challenges, approves Recreation and Parks fee increases

Councilmember Steve Woodard, center left, speaks during the Oct. 19 city council meeting via Zoom.

Challenges related to the proposed 2021-22 biennial budget and approval of resolutions to increse Recreation and Parks fees and contingency funding for the ongoing Civic Campus construction project were among the items adddressed by the Mountlake Terrace City Council during its Monday, Oct. 19 business meeting.

Following up on budget discussions during two work/study sessions last week, several councilmembers said Monday that the city may need to explore the possibility of including more money for outreach and growth efforts. The proposed yearly budget for economic development marketing of $27,500 does not include a community relations specialist position, which was eliminated earlier this year amid the pandemic.

Councilmember Bryan Wahl said that while he was struggling with how to proceed during this time of economic uncertainty and adjustments, he stressed that civic investments still need to be made. He requested that city staff compile a list of department-specific priorities or plans that were put on hold this year so that everyone involved could be “prepared to jump back into those when the time is right.”

Looking forward, Wahl said he would like to see the city “ramping up investments in our economic development program and we are ready when the economy is right to open up business opportunities to our community.” It is necessary, he added, to fund marketing and outreach efforts to ensure people and companies know about Mountlake Terrace and what it can offer, especially with the future ocal light rail station opening.

Councilmembers Erin Murray and Steve Woodard and Mayor Pro Tem Doug McCardle all echoed similar sentiments about city communications programs. Murray spoke about the need to provide residents with information updates that can impact their health and safety; she felt the city is currently understaffed for such efforts.

City Clerk and Community Relations Director Virginia Olsen said she agreed with Murray’s assessment of staffing. “We were already understaffed and could use more resources in communications,” Olsen said. It would be helpful, she said, for city staff to try to identify any existing assets that are underutilized or alternative approaches that could be implemented to “at least fill some of those gaps right now” until revenues return to normal. One possible idea would be a team approach to combine communication and marketing efforts moving forward, but right now, “we’re just trying to stay afloat,” Olsen added.

Murray observed any outreach that drives additional revenue could potentially help to offset specific staffing costs. Assistant City Manager Stephen Clifton volunteered that when the Civic Campus project is completed, he will also be able to participate more in those endeavors.

City Manager Scott Hugill noted that under city budget policy, even if the council approves a financial plan that assumes a return next year to pre-pandemic conditions, “we don’t do that if the money is not there.” He said part of his job responsibility is to ensure spending does not exceed what is authorized by the council, especially when the status of future federal stimulus packages is unknown and there is potential for changes to state revenue-sharing programs.

Mayor Kyoko Matsumoto Wright asked Hugill if the city would actually be able to afford the proposed budget. His reply: “You can afford it, and it doesn’t represent all that the departments may have wanted.” The budget, Hugill said, “represents a modest budget to pursue your goals, but it still has some constraints in it until we know more” in the face of an uncertain economic future.

Hugill promised to research specific items discussed by the council and present those findings at its next work/study session on Oct. 29.

The approved schedule of fee increases for 2021.

In other council matters Monday night, Recreation and Parks Department fees will see a modest increase going forward. Those user costs are set on a five-year schedule, with an annual analysis conducted to ensure they are consistent with local market conditions, prices and demand while still being able to maintain the city’s goals for financial stability and providing public services. During the latest review process, numerous program fees that had been expected to remain the same in 2021 were instead increased based on a recommendation from city staff.

The city’s recreation programs operate on a cost recovery model in which user fees provide a significant portion of their financial support. The department’s projected fee revenues in the proposed biennial budget were based partly on the expected program fee adjustments. The changes to user costs were previously reviewed and recommended for council adoption by the Recreation and Parks Advisory Commission in September.

In addition, councilmembers authorized an additional $300,000 in contingency funds to pay for city-approved change orders, design amendments and other unforeseen expenditures associated with the Civic Campus construction project. City Manager Hugill said approximately one-third of the money would go to ARC Architects for supplemental architectural costs due to ongoing contract work. “They’ve had to oversee a lot of change orders associated with this project both at the request of the city and because of errors of the contractor that have cost additional money,” Hugill said.

The city manager explained that many of the change orders throughout the process were not surprising and such refinements are the reason contingency funds are included in construction projects. However, “We are going to go to the contractor and seek payment from them for the additional costs of the architect to address their errors in the project,” Hugill said. He anticipated the city will be able to recoup those costs, “or at least some of them,” but noted the process will take some time.

When Allied Construction was awarded the Civic Campus contract in 2019, the council initially authorized a contingency of $190,000 and has since approved additional amounts requested by city staff. The newest adjustment is meant to address possible future changes and brings the project’s total authorized contingency amount to $900,000; which is still slightly below the need originally estimated when the contract was awarded. Construction bids were higher than initially calculated, which subsequently resulted in a large portion of the project’s contingency money being applied to help cover the base construction contract costs.

During his city manager’s report, Hugill updated the council on local pandemic relief efforts. He said that the city has begun issuing a second round of business grants, with the funds previously provided by the federal CARES Act. The city is reaching out to businesses where language may have been a barrier that prevented them from applying for the first round of grants this summer. Six businesses applied for help during the first round, Hugill said.

Also, the Foundation for Edmonds Schools has requested an additional $10,000 in funding to assist with delivering food to people who are homebound. The council will have to authorize providing more money to the organization for the program.

Following up on previous council discussions about the potential for providing rent reief for residents who are behind and facing evictions after the state’s temporary eviction moratorium ends, Hugill said there have been ongoing talks with Volunteers of America: Western Washington to provide such help. The organization has extensive experience with coordinating grant programs to set up tenant payment plan agreements with landlords to avoid eviction.

Hugill told council that he plans to bring an agreement for such services to the council for a vote during its next work/study session, “so we can get it going that much faster.”

A May 2020 Community Transit survey shows that a majority of the system’s riders are essential workers.

The council also received an update from Community Transit CEO Emmett Heath, who said during his presentation that the agency will continue to maintain current service levels through March 2021. He said ridership levels have dropped dramatically during the pandemic, but as a result of essential workers continuing to use their services and stimulus money from the CARES Act, the organization “is in a very stable, very safe and very sustainable position moving forward.” The agency is evaluating future service level increases but remains committed to the safety of both its riders and employees as a top priority.

Community Transit expects to make its bus-to-light rail service connections with Sound Transit available next year at the Northgate Transit Center. The plan calls for all 800-series buses to increase frequencies for linking up with the light rail at Northgate, while the 400-series buses will continue to provide direct service to downtown Seattle. Additionally, the agency is beginning work to incorporate full light rail integration in 2024, which includes opening a new Swift bus Orange line and expanding its Blue line route.

— By Nathan Blackwell

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