Weekly Update: 08/24/2020

I apologise up front that this week’s article is longer than some Russian novels. But as I’ve written before, the budget presentation is often considered to be the meeting of the year–and perhaps the reason to have a City Council. So I urge readers to slog through the entire thing like Stalingrad in ’43. I do not pretend that this is complete coverage of the Meeting. It represents the issues I considered of particular importance for Des Moines.

PSA #1: Now that the Federal Way light rail construction is really beginning in earnest, you may want to sign up for email updates from Sound Transit. There will be many road closures over the next year or so.

PSA #2: Dude: you really gotta sign up for the Census. We’re getting down to the wire and DM is currently only at about 71% participation. NOT ENOUGH! We need every living body counted. Each person counted represents about $30,000 in State and Local funding!

PSA #3: If you have a business in Des Moines, you should fill out a G.R.O. application, the City’s new business grant program πŸ™‚

This Week

Monday: Helping local businesses fill out those G.R.O. applications πŸ™‚ If you would like assistance–especially if you need a translator, please give me a call (206) 878-0578.

Monday: An MRSC Seminar on best practice use of CARES Act funds.

Tuesday: A seminar on how to bring electrification (cars, solar) to Cities

Wednesday: come have lunch with me at the Senior Center. Get an EATS voucher!

Wednesday: Sea-Tac Airport Roundtable (StART) Meeting. This will be Des Moines’ first meeting since we left along with Burien and Federal Way last year. Are these useful? Not particularly. πŸ˜€ But they could be. I… guess? πŸ˜€ I’ll save that for a slow news week.

Last Week

Tuesday: A very timely MRSC seminar on building and planning department functions.

Tuesday: Another meeting of the Burien Airport Committee. If you are interested in airport issues, they have become the nexus of activity for the region so I encourage you to check out their Zoom meetings: (Agenda)

Wednesday: I missed lunch at the Senior Center! Too many things going on’. Special thanks to Wesley resident Kayley Moon for getting me an extra EATS voucher!

Wednesday: A meeting with Port Of Seattle Director Stephen Metruck on the Port’s Port Package Update program. Again, no time for details, but if you have a Port Package or you’re interested in airport issues (and you should be), head over to SeatacNoise.Info.

Wednesday was also the latest Reach Out Des Moines meeting.

Thursday: There was an update on the ongoing PSRC Ferry Study which you can read about here. The upshot: no ferry coming to Des Moines any time soon. Not enough ridership and too many challenges with ‘multi-modality’ (ie. the traffic getting people to other destinations via bus, cab, etc.)

Thursday is a Special City Council Meeting (Agenda). Details below.

Friday: I had a chat with fellow Councilmember Luisa Bangs. Some of you may have noticed the temporary ‘frozen over’ sign at the gates of hell. πŸ˜€ I’m keeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeding! I very much appreciated the chance to talk with her. πŸ™‚ Beyond that, I feel like the voters kinda expect all of us to periodically do this, regardless of any differences of opinion. What did we discuss? Tattoos. My general lack of respect for authority. πŸ˜€ Oh… and public safety–which has been something she has focused on quite a lot over the years. And again, I was glad to get her opinions.

Special Meeting: So many questions

Backin’ up for a second: the 6 August meeting (Agenda, Video), was supposed to beΒ the ‘budget presentation’. However it went on for almost four hours and we still hadn’t gotten to any Council questions. So the 20 August meeting (Agenda, Video) consisted of all the questions we intended to ask, but did not get a chance to at that August 6th meeting.

Pro Tip: If you did not watch that meeting I would strongly suggest that you simply review the slide deck.Β  Unless you just really find these kinds of presentations riveting. No judgment. πŸ˜€

Can you hear me now?

Before we get into the questions,Β  if you watched the meeting live or are looking at the video, you’ll notice that it is now on Youtube. This is a major improvement and big thanks to our IT Staff for making that change! By the way, if you’ve seen me looking down at the beginning of meetings it’s usually because between five and ten people are texting me “there’s another problem with the damned video!” And then me plaintively emailing our City Clerk about it–which she really appreciates while she’s trying to work the controls on the meeting :D. Hopefully those days are over.

But first: The FIT Tool!

Before we get into the questions, I want to mention the short presentation from the State Auditor’s Office on their (sorta) new FIT Tool. I cannot recommend this thing highly enough! It provides all kinds of useful information on our City’s finances over the past few years in some very interesting ways, plus, it gives you the ability to compare cities which is even more fascinating.

The opener…

The meeting opened with the Mayor making yet another complaint about what he perceived as Councilmember Martinelli’s and my ‘complaints’ about the last meeting. To add another layer of irony, this is one of those things I complain about in my series of articles on Better City Council Meetings. πŸ˜€

In a Council/Manager form of government the Mayor has very few ‘special powers’. But they do hold the gavel, which gives them the unstated power to speechify whenever they so choose. There’s no ‘law’ that gives them that ability; they just get it because they run the meeting. In my humble opinion that power should be used only when absolutely necessary. Announcing that the building is on fire comes to mind. πŸ™‚

The broad strokes

Now, unlike the last meeting, this one lasted a crisp 2-1/2 hours. The structure of the questioning was that each Councilmember got five minutes and we went round-robin.

I had, by far, the most questions. Councilmember Martinelli had the fewest. Councilmember Bangs and Nutting had the next fewest, but in my opinion their comments were practical and of high quality. Councilmember Buxton kept coming back to an issue that several of us raised in various forms: one-time money, and I’ll get to that in a bit because it’s something everyone should be aware of in order to understand the financial strength of the City.

CARES Act

I asked two questions this week related to CARES Act funding. My first question, which I’ve also been pursuing off-line had to do spending authority. If you recall, on March 6, we voted to approve a Proclamation Of Emergency and one of the things that does is to give the City Manager unlimited spending authority. That seemed OK back in April when the sky was falling. But does it look like the sky is falling right now?

What that means is that choices on spending the $1 million dollars in CARES Act funding are being made entirely by the City Manager–with no Council approval of any kind. This does not thrill me. I do not believe any large expenditures should be made without a Council vote–unless the sky really is falling, of course.

My second question was about the new GRO Business Grant program. Many Cities have decided to turn over the administration of such programs to external agencies, like a Chamber Of Commerce or other organisation that has experience in doing this sort of thing so that there are no questions as to fairness. So I asked the City Manager for the scoring system, ie. which restaurants will be chosen and how much they will each get. His response was literally to shrug and said “I suppose so.” *Which I found to be less than optimal. πŸ˜€

Because when we rolled out the EATS program (we do love our acronyms πŸ˜€ ) three months ago, with a similar black box process, there were reasonable questions/controversies over not only which restaurants should be included but also in which order. Those concerns could have been addressed ahead of time simply by giving the Council a chance to provide input–and that’s what should have happened here.

Body Cameras

Out of the blue, there is $140,000 on the 1st draft for ‘Body Cameras’. I asked where that dollar amount came from and was told that it was a ‘placeholder’. Now: I’ve been writing financial software since 1987 and I have never seen that term used on a financial statement. Because there’s no such thing. When you put something on a financial statement, you’re saying you intend to do something.

Fortunately, Councilmember Martinelli asked the same question and the Chief Of Police helpfully gave him a straightforward answer (which was nice.) The Chief did some research of 4-5 vendors and that was his best guess for a first year cost of the hardware. Now we’re getting somewhere.

My second question on this was a lot trickier: Why are we doing this?

Background: on May 30, the Chief Of Police published a statement promising to review policing in Des Moines. This was followed up by other statements from the City Manager and support from the dais by Mayor Pina. The upshot is that the City said it was conducting a review of policing practices and an analysis of how what we might do here to deal with ‘systemic racism’.

And yet, when I asked for a report or study showing the results of that work, both the City Manager and the Chief acted puzzled; they had no idea about any of that. So basically we’re spending $140,000 without evidence of need and data.

Dear residents of Des Moines: I do not vote to spend dollar one of your money without evidence and data. To do otherwise is like prescribing Chloroquine for COVID-19. It may sound good at first blush, but… πŸ˜€

Let me be clear: if the City Manager or Chief presents a legit public safety need, I am right there. Just show me the evidence and the supporting data. After the horrible George Floyd killing, I wrote about my own family’s personal experience with racism and bad policing.Β  So if body cameras are something that would demonstrably reduce incidents of police misconduct and improve relations with the public? I am so there.

But here’s the thing: the Chief obviously feels extremely good about the culture of our police force. As does the City Manager. I’ve asked my colleagues on the City Council and they are similarly confident. I’ve also asked people on the Police Advisory Committee and they have nothing but praise for our Police Force.

OK. If all that is the case, I ask you: where is the problem? If there is no evidence of problems, why spend that kind of money in a budget year so tight that we’re contemplating furloughs and using one-time money?

Again, the one thing I have not seen is data. I have asked for a series of reports on police stops and officer complaints and gotten no response. I was told that such information would be presented to the Public Safety Committee when the body camera issue was brought forward for a vote. Which means that thereΒ is data, but Councilmembers can’t see it until right before a vote? That is what really bugs me: Putting something on a budget without supporting data? Just. Don’t. Do. It.

All that aside, if there’s no data, no complaints and everyone agrees that our PD is doing a great job, I think I’m showing better support and trust in our Police Department by saying, “we’re good for now”. If there is still $140k on the table? Spend that money where it will have an immediate impact. I can think of at least four spots in Des Moines that desperately need a traffic enforcement officer right now. There is an obvious need which I can see right now.

One-Time Money

It was just a few years ago that you’d hear the phrase ‘one-time money for one-time expenses’ so many times you’d think the Maharishi had given it to the entire Council as a mantra. It means: revenue from things like construction should be set aside for one-time purchases (eg. building something) and not for recurring expenses (eg. salaries, rent.) Recurring expenses should be paid for with recurring revenues (eg property taxes which are dependable.)

Like that new exercise program I’ve been meaning to start for the past five years, it was a noble idea. But unfortunately, we could never seem to actually get round to doing it. Year after year, we’d use those one-time monies just to ‘pay the bills’ rather than do the painful work of creating a budget we could live within. When the current City Manager was hired, the City actually did institute that discipline and it was a significant part of the financial recovery and he deserves credit for that.

So just a few years coming out of that we’re in another financial pickle. We’re doing OK, but we’re not doing as fabulously as the rhetoric from the current majority might lead one to believe. And that is what I have always objected to: the hyperbole. Yes, we’re not as hard up right now as some of our peers, but we’re not exactly rolling in it either.

Even with the new revenues and the financial discipline, the proposed budget will require once again taking going to close to one million in one-time money. And we are being warned that this is also a real possibility again in 2021–which then starts to sound like a trend.

Now, the City is proposing this in order to avoid furloughs or reducing staff levels. And I’m fine with that for 2020. But even Cities which are financially stronger than we are (eg. SeaTac–which has no need to use one-time money) are creating staff-reduction plans and other long-term strategies to plan for future waves. They are talking long-term and that is a big part of why they sound so gloom and doom.

In short, we’ve been lagging behind all our neighbouring cities in providing forecasting to the Council. And we haven’t shown a five year projection–which was something I was trying to pry out of the discussion. Because by not showing a five year projection, by avoiding talk about one-time money over the long-term, we’re avoiding those pesky discussions about worst case scenarios.

Speaking of which: the seawall

The necessary Federal permits for the north bulkhead repair have not come through yet, which means that the funding we were hoping to get to pay for it is also not a sure thing. So, I asked a kinda ‘what if’ question. What if State or Federal grants don’t come through and our budget doesn’t improve and we simply have to tap into our borrowing authority to pay the $10 million in necessary costs? (That is only mildly far-fetched, but that wasn’t the point of the question.)

After the requisite teeth-pulling, the City Manager said something off-handed like borrowing $2-3 million might be OK to borrow for such an emergency spending. That’s helpful, I suppose. That tells me that’s the sort of spending he feels comfortable with in terms of any truly dire expense.

Back up: I’m constantly being asked why the City doesn’t do this, that or the other ‘big thing’ that so many of you want–things that would be transformational. Well, the answer, as Ricky Ricardo used to say, “We can’t afford it, Lucy.”Β  If that north bulkhead fails in a bad storm? Oy, are we screwed. The entire north parking lot, marina, condos? Sayonara! So that’s truly an expense we must deal with.

So: if we can’t justify borrowing a large sum for something as essential as that on our own? The idea of actuallyΒ investing in something transformational for Des Moines–even before COVID-19–was almost unthinkable.

What I’m getting at is this: I want people to have realistic expectations about our City’s capabilities. Back in 2016, the current majority was able to institute much better financial controls, improve the bond rating and we now pay our bills on time without sweating. Great. But even before COVID-19 we were nowhere near where we need to be in order to make the kinds of changes we’ve all wanted for so many decades. So we still have a very tough row to hoe. We not only have to survive COVID-19, we also have to figure out how to transform our local economy. And I simply haven’t heard any serious discussion of that in all the years I’ve been watching City politics.

So… what do you want?

Glad you asked. πŸ˜€

  1. At the end of the meeting, the Mayor asked us to vote on using some of the Council’s personal fund to support perhaps 20 families in aΒ  partnership program between Highline Schools and Comcast to provide broadband internet service to families without. It’s a nice gesture, but there are perhaps a thousand families in Des Moines that have no decent broadband service and that means that those children simply cannot get a decent education. The City Of Burien has already stepped up and will use some of their CARES Act money to help their students and we should do the same. No, this is not a traditional function of municipal government, but then neither are business grants. In this state of emergency I consider helping our students to be as important not fall behind just as important to our City’s future as business grants. The City should be doing everything possible to fund that program.
  2. The City has not budgeted any monies to fight the airport’s expansion plans (aka ‘the SAMP’) and that is a mistake. All my colleagues in other Cities understand that if we are not pro-active in our response, not only will we not stop the expansion, we will (once again) lose any chance for serious mitigation monies–the kind of funding we should have received after the Third Runway was built. What we are doing now is waiting to respond according to the Port’s timeline. It’s a strategic mistake that could cost us millions now in mitigation funding–just as it did twenty years ago.

Summary

Like the entire pandemic, this article seems to go on endlessly. And this is the most critical I’ve been of the current administration. But the Budget Meeting is where the rubber meets the road.Β  There were three basic themes I wanted to present here and they represented the major concerns I brought up as a candidate: authority, transparency, transformation.

1. I want the Council to take a more active role. All policy should emanate from the Council and no large expenses should be undertaken without a Council vote.

2. I want a lot more evidence and data brought before Council. I dislike any spending decisions that are made without hard data and I want to see that data available loooong before a vote comes up so that Council has a real chance to mold policy.

3. I want the City to research, design and commit to a long-term plan to make Des Moines more financially independent–and by that I mean specifically to be able to undertake necessary programs without relying so much on grants from the State or Federal governments. As impossible as it may seem right now, I want the City to start talking about how get to a world where we can think about transformational improvements to Des Moines.

I also want a pony. πŸ™‚

Which is to say, that my colleagues in the majority disagree completely. They have an extremely high level of trust in the City Manager, both his management of day to day activities and his vision for the future.

I find all this puzzling because my questions are just simple due diligence. That’s how I approach my role on the City Council. It’s literally my job to be skeptical. But never unfriendly or disrespectful. The office is all I care about.

*I’m trying out this new thing this week: understatement. πŸ˜€

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