In a 4-3 vote, the Newcastle City Council adopted a 2021 budget that calls for expenditure cuts across every department, highlighted by the cancellation of the community’s summer events and reductions to other services.
When the preliminary 2021 budget was released this fall, the numbers showed an operating deficit of approximately $700,000. City expenditures are outpacing revenue, because the costs to provide basic City services, especially public safety protection, are rising annually. The problem is Newcastle relies on three income streams (property taxes, sales taxes and development revenue), two of which are hampered by a limited commercial retail base and declining opportunities for development in a small City.
Following the voters’ rejection of Referendum 2, the City does not have the revenue to continue providing the same services residents have come to expect. So, the City Council has spent the past few months shaping a 2021 budget that calls for expenditure cuts across every department, impacting service levels to residents.
In November, the City Council voted to cut the 2021 summer events. That means the City’s Fourth of July fireworks show, Concerts in the Park and Newcastle Days will not take place in an effort to cut costs. They also cut the budget for seasonal maintenance workers in half, which will impact vegetation management (weeding) and trail maintenance.
The cuts continued on December 1. In a move that impacts the future of Newcastle parks and trails, the Council voted to further delay the hiring of a project planner until 2022. This effectively puts parks projects and improvements, including the Lake Boren Park Master Plan, on hold for the foreseeable future. The position was a vital resource on parks and trail planning and served as an advocate and engineer for these valued amenities.
The City will also stop monitoring Lake Boren for public swimming water quality, after the Council voted to cut the program which began this year. The service monitored the lake for E. coli bacteria each week throughout the summer swimming months.
The Council also cut the budget for road striping, electing to perform this service every other year, rather than annually. They also eliminated a $15,000 budget item for snow and ice supplies. Staff noted that responding to winter weather is an essential function, so if snow and ice hits Newcastle in 2021, the City will purchase the supplies necessary to keep roads safe. However, the Council is no longer budgeting ahead for this possibility.
The budget also decreases the City’s training and travel expenses by half and eliminates the 3% merit-based salary increase for employees in 2021.
“This is not a reflection on our staff’s quality of work. As the COVID-19 crisis unfolded, our small staff of employees rose to the call for action, working longer hours, picking up the pieces of unfilled staff positions and responsibilities, all while adapting to a new COVID-19 work environment that certainly comes with its own struggles,” City Manager Rob Wyman said. “However, as the City faces these financial challenges, we all must make sacrifices.”
The budget includes funding for an additional officer, set to start in September 2021. In a passionate speech before the Council, Police Chief Jason Houck explained that their initial decision to delay the hiring of an additional police officer until 2022 puts Newcastle residents, visitors, and officers at risk. In 2019, Chief Houck requested the extra officer to protect Newcastle’s growing City and address residents’ biggest concern – traffic complaints.
The new officer was set to join the City in the second half of 2020, however due to COVID-19 impacts and staffing shortages at the King County Sheriff’s Office, the Newcastle Police Department remained at its current levels this year. The preliminary budget called to delay hiring this officer until April 2021. After voters rejected Referendum 2, a measure which would’ve supported public safety costs, the Council voted to further delay hiring this additional officer until January 2022.
Following Chief Houck’s comments, the Council reversed course and voted to fund the additional officer starting in September 2021. The Newcastle Police Department still does not have enough officers to ensure there are two on duty 24/7, but adding this one gets them closer to providing that service for a growing community of nearly 13,000.
The Council made various other cuts (you can view a full list here), eventually bringing the operating budget deficit down to a little more than $300,000. They will use General Fund reserves to cover the remaining projected shortfall in 2021, a strategy made possible by previous Council actions to build up a healthy fund balance. However, this approach is not sustainable as reserves are drawn down closer to zero.
– The City Council approved the May Creek Park Assemblage preliminary plat. The 45-lot project requires developers to complete the extension of Southeast 84th Place, estimated at more than $2.9 million, at their own expense. Learn more about the project here.
– The City Council approved an ordinance amending critical area standards to reflect recent changes to the Washington State Department of Ecology’s wetland buffer standards. Learn more here.
– Read City Manager Rob Wyman’s report here.