Lake Forest Park finances weather the pandemic

Friday, March 5, 2021

By Tracy Furutani

A year into the pandemic, the City of Lake Forest Park is financially sound, according to city leaders speaking at the February 18, 2021 meeting of the Budget and Finance Committee of the City Council. 


As Councilmember Tom French put it: “Because of the hard work of the staff and the administration, we are in a very enviable position compared to our neighbors and compared to many cities in the region.”
"The City of Lake Forest Park budget graph shows expenditures by various governmental departments for the 2019-2020 biennium. The length of the bar represents the total expenditure in dollars, and the percentage indicates the percent of the allocated budget the expenditures represent; a yellow bar means that department exceeded its budgeted amount. The bar for "Street Maintenance" is incorrect; it should not be over budget. Source: City of Lake Forest Park."
 
“We were just coming out of realizing that at the end of July that we were 16 percent down on revenue and so at that point we had to be extremely cautious,” said City Finance Director Lindsey Vaughn. 

“For the most part, we did end up in a better financial position [than had been expected].” 

For the last three quarters of last year, the city’s general fund revenue was down only down three and a half percent, she said, though she did point out that some of the shortfall was made up by one-time funds, such as the federal CARES Act. She mentioned that every single city staff person took (unpaid) furlough days.

“This is really kind of a pride point for our city that we have staff who care so much they would be willing to take those furlough days, and we are really really grateful to them,” said Deputy Mayor and Councilmember Phillippa Kassover.

“’Furloughs’ is an easy word to say, but it really affected a lot of the staff quite a bit,” said Mayor Jeff Johnson. “It’s really about them and what they did and what they accomplished with less hours and with less money. It just is pretty amazing.”

Vaughn led a review of the city’s finances: Revenue from passport sales for the 2019-2020 time period was down nearly a half, compared to the previous two years, and money from the Business and Occupations tax, traffic safety camera fines and the gasoline tax were all down 4 to 17 percent.

On the other hand, revenue from the Real Estate Excise Tax was up over a third from the previous biennium, as was money from the Sales and Use Tax, both of which were a welcome surprise. These figures led the committee to a discussion about planning future budgets.

“I think that one thing that we’ve really learned through this,” said City Administrator Phillip Hill, “is we have a couple of revenue sources, one being passports and the other being red light cameras that aren’t as reliable as maybe one thought in the past and so we need to reconsider how those are allocated and how we pay for the other things that the citizens want in this community.”

French envisioned a plan where the traffic safety camera revenues are used for safety improvements like sidewalks and safe crossings rather than balancing the city’s budget.

Hill mentioned that negotiations with two of the city staff unions were happening this year, and the budget impact of those contracts was unknown.

“Before the pandemic hit, we were actually starting a conversation about the revenue needed to take care of our parks acquisitions and starting to think about some of those needs,” said committee chair and Councilmember John Resha. “Those needs haven’t gone away.”

Councilmember Lorri Bodi agreed that the completion of the acquisition and the development of the lakeshore park was a priority. 

“[That park] is a huge potential public amenity, but if it drags out fifteen years, it’s going to be less of a public amenity,” she said. 

She also mentioned that plans for improving Horizon View Park had been put on hold, as had work on sidewalks and the Safe Streets campaign. “One of the legacies of the pandemic is we have so many walkers and if anything we have more walkers than we used to before,” she said, noting that she had heard that there was no dedicated fund for creating sidewalks.

The committee talked about the need to develop alternate funding for budget priorities.

“I may be so bold as to actually use the term ‘levy lid lift’,” said Kassover, referring to the successful 2001 state initiative that requires cities to hold a vote if they want to increase their property taxes by more than 1% annually. “I want to start having that conversation soon.”

Johnson said that he remembered the last time the city tried to raise the property tax lid and felt the city was in a better position now. 
“We’ve done ourselves a great favor by being very transparent and very good at taking care of the money,” he said, “We can’t ask people [that] we need help, without proving that we’ve done all we can do to take care of what we’ve gotten. It’s not hard to see where the [city’s] money goes.”

Resha summarized: “[The city] did all the right things, and we did some really hard work, and the staff throughout the city really stepped up, but we also have some deferred issues that we’ll have to deal with as an impact from that, so this is a great news story, but it did come at a cost.”



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