Mayor addresses civil emergency, decision to veto ordinance eliminating city’s utility tax

At the Lynnwood City Council’s May 26 business meeting, Mayor Nicola Smith (top right) addressed her decision to declare a civil emergency Monday due to threats made to loot Alderwood Mall.

After declaring a civil emergency and a citywide curfew earlier in the day, Lynnwood Mayor Nicola Smith opened Monday’s Lynnwood City Council work session by addressing the action taken after alleged reports of “civil unrest” threatened Alderwood Mall.

During her comments, Smith described the reported tips from community members received by the Lynnwood Police Department on social media about possible looting and property damage to the mall. Reading from a prepared statement, Smith said her reason for implementing the curfew — which lasted from 5 p.m. Monday until 5 a.m. Tuesday — was to reduce the likelihood of looting, similar to what has been seen in cities across the U.S. and worldwide in response to the death of George Floyd.

In her remarks, Smith made a point to differentiate between looting and the demonstrations in response to the death of Floyd, a Black man who died after he was handcuffed and immobilized under the knee of a white Minneapolis police officer for more than eight minutes.

“I want to make it really clear that there is a distinct difference between looting and wanting to cause property damage and the protests in response to the tragic death of George Floyd in Minneapolis,” she said. “We mourn Mr. Floyd’s untimely death and send our deepest condolences to his friends and family and the community at large who have been deeply impacted by this incident.”

Following her comments, Smith addressed her decision to veto an ordinance recently approved by the council to eliminate the city’s 6% tax on water and sewer utility services effective January 2021.

At its May 26 business meeting, the council voted 4-3 to eliminate the city-imposed tax to help residents save money during the health crisis. The measure was proposed by Councilmember Jim Smith, who said eliminating the tax would send a message of “good faith” to community members struggling to pay bills amid skyrocketing unemployment across the state.

The council voted to adopt the ordinance against the advice of city Finance Director Sonja Springer, who said eliminating the tax would be “financially devastating” to the city.

During the May 26 meeting, Springer said removing the tax would ultimately result in city staff layoffs and she instead suggested the council find ways to cut $1.4 million — the amount generated annually by the tax — to city services before cutting revenue streams.

In a memo sent to councilmembers before the meeting, Mayor Smith said she exercised her authority to veto the ordinance because the process by which it was presented to the council violated council procedure by having no written explanation or analysis offered by the measure’s sponsor. The mayor also said the procedure went against the state’s directive to only discuss matters related to COVID-19 or “routine and necessary” business.

Additionally, the mayor noted the ordinance was presented as a way of providing financial relief to Lynnwood residents during the COVID-19 pandemic, but it called to eliminate the 6% tax permanently. Furthermore, she said the revenue shortfall would affect the city’s biennium budget and any changes to the budget require two or more public hearings before a decision can be made.

“Although it’s out of the ordinary for a mayor to exercise her or his veto power, in this instance, I believe it’s warranted,” she said. “I feel that it is my duty to ensure that proper procedure is followed and that council, city staff and the public are able to deliberate and evaluate any adverse repercussions of such a decision.”

The mayor also pointed out that during the May 26 meeting, the council discussed ways to use federal CARES Act funds to create relief programs for local businesses and community members.

The Washington State Department of Commerce granted Lynnwood access to $1.188 million in federal funds to be used to cover the cost of COVID-19 relief. According to city staff, $700,000 of the funding will be used to provide grants to struggling local businesses and community members.

“As mayor, I want to offer community support through the best means possible,” Smith said. “CARES Act funds can accomplish this without severely impacting the city’s finances.”

During the council discussion, Councilmember Ian Cotton, who voted in favor of the ordinance, said he appreciated the mayor’s thoughtful response and that she raised some good points. He also said he hopes to continue the discussion regarding the tax in the future.

Councilmember Smith, who proposed the measure, said he would save his comments for the council’s next work session.

Also during the meeting, the council received briefings from the Lynnwood Municipal Court staff and South County Fire Department on how business operations have been impacted by COVID-19. 

South County Fire was the first emergency response team in the U.S. to transport a patient diagnosed with the coronavirus, which Interim Fire Chief Thad Hovis said gave the department a chance to hit the ground running in January.

“Fortunately, we have a team of forward-looking fire service professionals that knew this was coming,” he said.

Though the department had a ration of personal protective equipment (PPE) left over from the previous health crisis, like the H1N1 pandemic in 2009, Hovis said the department still faces PPE supply chain issues.

To conserve PPE, South County fire agencies have been using ultraviolet (UV) light units and electrostatic cleaners to disinfect N-95 masks, enabling firefighters to safely reuse masks a limited number of times. The UV units sanitize PPE without harsh chemicals and are also used to clean items like radios, cell phones, pagers and other items firefighters use daily.

To read South County Fire’s full COVID-19 impact memo, click the link found on here.

At the Lynnwood Municipal Court, Court Administrator Paulette Revior said court services have not changed as a result of the health crisis and staff was able to easily transition to a “virtual court” setting.

Three years ago, the court implemented OCourt software, which allowed it to quickly adapt to conducting judicial business remotely and paperlessly, Revior said. 

“It basically allowed our court to be virtual overnight,” she said. “There are many courts in the region that are very paper reliant…and they weren’t able to turn on the switch like we were able to do.”

Since Gov. Jay Inslee’s stay-at-home order went into effect in March, Revior said the court has only held in-custody hearings for inmates in the Lynnwood Jail. However, the jail has been careful not to hold too many inmates at a time to prevent the spread of COVID-19 and as a result, in-custody hearings have gone down. Out-of-custody hearings for mandatory arrest charges like DUI, fourth-degree assault and no-contact orders are being held telephonically, she added

Additionally, all jury trials have been suspended through August. According to Revior, the Lynnwood court only has about two jury trials annually.

As the stay-at-home order has been extended, Revior said the court has also extended the moratorium on collecting fines to provide relief to those struggling during the economic downturn.

“They’re having a hard enough time figuring out how to pay the light bill and put food on the table. We do not at all want to add to additional stress with them on how to pay their fines,” she said.

Revior also presented plans for health and safety practices when the court eventually reopens, including requiring people to wear face masks in the courtroom and reception area, installing spit guards in the courtroom, and hiring temporary help to assist with directing lobby traffic and enforcing social distancing and PPE requirements.

To see the full memo from the Lynnwood Municipal Court briefing, click the link found here.

The council ended the meeting by entering into an executive session to discuss labor relations with Human Resource Director Evan Chin.

–By Cody Sexton

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