Council reviews public safety-related budget proposals, repeals Lynnwood’s $40 car tab fee

Speaking during the Lynnwood City Council’s Oct. 25 meeting, Lynnwood Municipal Court Judge Valerie Bouffiou said that two court marshals are needed in the new biennium.

Safety was the topic of discussion Monday night as the Lynnwood City Council reviewed proposals for the city’s 2023-2024 biennium budget. Later in the meeting, the council voted again to repeal the city’s $40 car tab fee.

At its Oct. 24 business meeting, the council received proposed budgets from Lynnwood’s municipal courts and police department, both of which included requests for additional dollars to hire more staff. The complete proposed budget was presented to the council at its Oct. 10 meeting and councilmembers will receive presentations and hold discussions on the budget until Oct. 31.

During the Monday night meeting, the council was briefed on a proposal for the Lynnwood Municipal Courts, which is seeking approval for a $3.98 million budget that would cover the cost of hiring two part-time court marshals to provide security. Judge Valerie Bouffiou – who led the presentation – said the need for court marshals is an immediate one and would cost $216,000 for the biennium. The courts are also aiming to hire an assistant court administrator and a legal specialist who would act as a lead clerk.

Recently, security in the courts has been provided by the Lynnwood Police Department but Bouffiou said relying on the department – which is experiencing its own staffing shortages – is not sustainable. During her presentation, Bouffiou explained that when security is unavailable, the courts are required to close.

“That means that individuals who are coming to court to have their cases heard, members of the public who are coming to hear cases and potential victims of crime who are coming to the court are not able to enter the courtroom and are denied access to justice,” she said.

Bouffiou said the qualified candidates for the court martials would include retired law enforcement personnel who would be trained by the police department to respond to emergencies, enforce security and take defendants into custody. She also cited a recent rise in security incidents across Washington state as a need for sustainable courtroom security.

Additionally, Bouffiou said the courts are requesting $130,000 in funds to pay for technology and hardware for the new space in the future Community Justice Center, which includes redeveloping the city’s police department, municipal courts and jail. Plans for the facility include adding a second courtroom, judges chambers, small clerk’s office and jury room, all of which will need to be fitted with technology and audiovisual capabilities.

Bouffiou also addressed future funding requests to create a Community Court, which she said would offer a holistic approach when dealing with chronic non-violent repeat offenders by connecting them with access to services, housing and medical care. By breaking their cycle of incarceration, Bouffiou said, the alternative court would reduce jail costs and crime in the city.

“It’s going to improve the quality of all of our community members,” she said. “It’s going to strengthen all of our community relationships, it’s going to build stronger safer neighborhoods and we’re going to promote public safety when we open up this court.”

However, Bouffiou said creating the Community Court is contingent on the Community Justice Center’s construction timeline and would likely not be available until early 2025. However, she said it would give the court time to find additional funding for the program.

Lynnwood Police Chief Jim Nelson briefs the council on the police department’s need for more officers.

Next, Lynnwood Police Chief Jim Nelson presented a $48.7 million budget proposal for the department, which he said would help address the department’s “unprecedented” staffing issues. He said the department is currently short 17 officers, including 12 who were recently hired but are still undergoing training, two who are on long-term leave and three positions that are vacant. Nelson cited a change in societal views toward policing, a lack of applicants and recent police reform legislation as reasons for the staffing shortage.

“All of these factors result in our agency facing an unprecedented staffing crisis,” he said.

Nelson explained the department is short 17 officers. Of those, 12 are being trained, two are on extended leave and three positions are currently vacant.

As a result, Nelson said the department is having to continuously pull officers from one area to fill another, and the additional work is having a negative effect on officer wellness.

“These actions fly in the face of officer wellness efforts we have committed ourselves to,” he said. “We must put our officers in the right mental and physical positions so they can bring their best selves to work each day so they can be there for you when it’s your worst day.”

Nelson said the department is looking to fill four officer positions in the Lynnwood Jail, which he said would be funded by a $1.25 million grant from the U.S. Department of Justice. The grant allows the department to hire up to 10 new officers and requires the city to match 25% of the cost. Nelson explained that the cost to the city would be paid for using salary savings from current and future vacancies in the department.

During the discussion following the briefing, Councilmember Shannon Sessions said the police department’s staffing issues were concerning but acknowledged the city could not address it until now. She said she was eager for the department to get its staffing levels up to where they should be.

“We’re getting there but we’re not there yet,” she said.

Council Vice President Jim Smith said the city should prioritize hiring more officers and listed several criminal incidents – many of which he said were gun-related – as a reason to do so.

“Things have changed here in Lynnwood,” he said. “We need to be doing all we can to push back on these new statistics. We need to do all that we can to make sure everybody here in Lynnwood is safe.”

In response, Sessions pointed out that the spike in crime is not just a Lynnwood issue, but a national one.

“It’s not as if Lynnwood is more unsafe,” she said. “This is a national issue that crimes in general in the last couple years have become more brazen, which highlights again how important it is to have these positions filled.”

In other business, the council unanimously voted to approve a proposed increase in the city’s  2023-28 utility rates. The proposal recommended a 5% increase in water rates, a 21% increase in sewer rates and a 4.25% hike in stormwater rates. A public hearing regarding the rate increase was held at the council’s Oct. 10 business meeting.

Every three years, the public works department hires a consultant to review the city’s water, sewer and stormwater utility rates and propose needed adjustments. The new utility rate plan will last six years, with a reevaluation of the rates after three years to ensure they are still adequately aligned with inflation. Under the proposal, all three utility rates will increase next year. The average water user will see their bill rise from between $1.74 – $1.91 per billing cycle; average sewer bills will increase by roughly $10; and stormwater charges are set to increase by 61 cents.

Prior to the vote, Public Work Director Bill Franz reviewed the ordinance and discussed community feedback gathered from the Oct. 10 hearing, including a suggestion for the city to offer a tiered billing system, where residents who use significantly more water are charged differently from those who use less. While the tiered structure was not possible at the time, Franz said city staff would look into it during the next rate study.

“We recommended not to make a quick change on that but that we are interested,” he said.

Franz said the substantial changes to the rate structure could have unforeseen impacts on revenues that will fund Lynnwood’s expected upgrade of its wastewater treatment plant. Renovations to the treatment center are expected to cost $200 million, he said.

Following Franz’s briefing, Sessions pointed out that the rate increases were not new taxes and were necessary for the city as it prepares for anticipated population growth.

“We have the responsibility as the city council to make sure that we are building a strong foundation and infrastructure,” she said.

Lynnwood City Council President George Hurst has repeatedly urged the council to strike the city’s $40 car tab fee.

Also during the meeting, the council voted 4-2 – with Councilmembers Sessions and Julieta Altamirano-Crosby voting against and Councilmember Josh Binda abstaining – to remove the city’s $40 car tab fee, which provides funding for street and sidewalk maintenance.

The council has repeatedly discussed whether the council should remove the city-imposed car registration fee. Most recently, the matter was discussed in May and during the council’s Oct. 10 meeting. The proposal to remove the fee has been championed by Council President George Hurst, who said the council should strike the fee because in 2019, 54% of Lynnwood voters supported I-976, which would have capped car registration fees at $30. The measure was overturned in 2020 by the Washington State Supreme Court, which ruled it unconstitutional. Last year, the council voted to eliminate the fee but the decision was overturned by former Mayor Nicola Smith — and couldn’t muster a supermajority vote needed to override the veto. Since then, the discussion has been brought back before the council twice this year and postponed both times.

In a memo addressed to the council from the city’s Finance Director Michelle Meyer, Lynnwood is projected to collect about $2.3 million in revenue over the next two years from the car tab fee, which would go toward funding road and sidewalk repairs.

Lynnwood City Councilmember Shannon Sessions asked the council not to support eliminating the city’s $40 car tab fee.

Speaking against the ordinance, Sessions pointed out that street maintenance has been listed as a top priority by residents and the council should not cut off revenue for repairs.

“Our number-one complaint in this city is our traffic,” she said. “Why would I do anything to stop those things from happening finally when we’re at a place where we have some momentum?”

However, Smith – who voted in favor of the ordinance – said the intention was not to cut back on funding street maintenance but rather to offer struggling Lynnwood residents a lighter tax burden. He also proposed using dollars from the city’s general fund to fill gaps in road repair costs and urged councilmembers to vote in favor of eliminating the fee.

In response, Sessions said the council should find other ways to help Lynnwood residents in need of financial assistance and that the ordinance would have little impact on them.

“I think it’s disingenuous to say that (saving) $40 a year, per vehicle is going to make a huge difference in somebody’s family,” she said.

Speaking to his abstention, Binda said he did not know enough about the matter to vote on it.

Additionally, the council voted 6-1 against a motion to eliminate a 6% utility tax on water, sewer and wastewater utilities. Like the $40 car tab fee ordinance, the city previously voted in 2020 to strike the utility tax but former Mayor Nicola Smith vetoed the decision, saying that eliminating the tax would be “financially devastating” to the city.

Voting in favor of the ordinance, Councilmember Smith said that Lynnwood residents who did not qualify for any of the city’s utility rebate or discount programs were being penalized and that the tax revenue was just “free money for the city.” However, Sessions said Lynnwood’s utility fee was lower than surrounding cities like Edmonds – which has a 17.7% tax – and Mountlake Terrace, whose residents pay a 13.8% utility tax.

“We are on the lower scale,” she said. “This is not asking too much.”

Also during the meeting, the council issued proclamations for Veterans Day and Domestic Violence Awareness Month.

— By Cody Sexton

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