The city of Lake Stevens has been spending a lot of time reviewing the budget and the economic development of the city in a time of economic stress and after much talk and deliberation made the decision to lay off a police officer on June 29, 2012.
Cuts have already been made in other city departments including Planning and Public Works.
“The reasoning is the budget,” Lake Stevens City Administrator Jan Berg explained. “Currently the city’s general fund reserves go to a minus one percent at the end of 2016 if we don’t change something.”
Officer Matt McCourt was given a 30-day notice and the department is working to get him placed in another police department.
“We have contacted other law enforcement agencies and he is a very good candidate. I anticipate that he will be picked up relatively quickly,” Lake Stevens Police Chief Randy Celori said.
While there may be concerns that police presence or response times will decrease, the city nor the police department see that taking place.
“I don’t think the community is going to see a difference. It will impact some of our proactivity slightly, however, I anticipate our response times will generally stay the same and we have great response times,” Celori said. “Citizens can expect an officer at their doorstep within one to two minutes in an emergency call or 15 minutes on a low, low priority call.”
Lake Stevens has a crime rate lower than most surrounding cities and approximately 39 percent of the 32,000 incidents per year are traffic stops or security checks.
“With our staffing now we are probably the lowest in the county, however the work our officers are doing is top notch which is evident in our response times,” Celori explained. “Our crime rate for Lake Stevens is probably the lowest per capita in the county for 2011. This has a lot to do with our officers being proactive. I don’t see our response times affected too much, however, we may see a slight increase in overtime costs due to training and vacations.”
Berg agrees, citing the city’s concern for the taxpayers and their responsibility to be conservative with taxpayer money.
“Our number one priority is safety for the community and safety for the officers. We do have to ask the questions, ‘how can we do business more efficiently?’ and ‘how can we still provide a high level of service in a time where we can’t afford what we’ve been doing?’ We have been evaluating all of the departments in the city and have previously made cuts in planning, public works and administration. We can handle this with what we have so why would we add more cost to the taxpayer,” Berg said.
While many other communities are seeing a slight come back as far as the economy goes, Lake Stevens is having a harder time because of the lack of sales tax income.
“Even though nationally and regionally the economy is starting to bounce back, we don’t have any retail to benefit from that,” Berg said. “That’s why we are focusing on the economic development. Those two plans should be adopted and ready by for development by the end of September. We’re trying to be realistic with the finances. We’ve got to make sure we are keeping track of our money and raising taxes isn’t an option.”
With the sewer treatment plant being completed this year, the city will see an even bigger dip in sales tax.
“Our sales tax is budgeted to go down this year because the sewer treatment plant is finished. We were getting sales tax on the construction of the treatment plant materials. We knew that and planned accordingly,” Berg said.
Part of the city’s plan is to bring in more retail, which will help raise the sales tax that comes into the city.
“We are actively recruiting businesses as we speak. We have a lot of interest from some major developers and retailers. The problem, especially on 20th St. SE, is that we need to get the infrastructure in place in order to build the sales tax and employment base. When we look at financial forecasting, our best scenario is two to three years out before we see any increase in retail,” Berg said.
Mayor Vern Little helped explain this at city council meeting on Monday, July 9.
“When we look at the budget we have to look five years in advance. We’re broke in five years. We may have a chance to break even in that fifth year. We have to be able to afford it first (keeping the police officer),” Little said.
Councilmember Kathy Holder concurred saying, “It’s obviously a very difficult decision to make, we have to look at our future.”
Currently the Lake Stevens Police Department has 22 police officers, one police support officer, and six employees in administration and records and when the city annexed they developed quadrants within the city and added a satellite station at Fairweather near Albertsons, they also developed a detective unit at that time.
“We changed the department for the growth of the community,” Berg said. “The city government has always been good at making do with what we have and have always been conservative, resourceful and frugal.”
The city and the police guild have finished negotiations and the officers are getting a wage increase in their contracts.
“We just finished with the guild negotiations and settled their contract for 2012-2014. They were asking for wage increases to come up with their comparables (city size),” Berg said. “They received a three percent raise this year, two percent cost of living increase for 2013-2014 and their medical benefits stayed the same. The city pays 100 percent of the employee’s insurance and 90 percent of their dependents. They also began receiving an education incentive. Fifty percent of the city’s budget goes to the police department just as before.”
Celori and Berg are both confident that the citizens will not see any difference with one less police officer in the department.
“We will continue to provide the best services with the resources that we have,” Celori said.