City Council Roundup | Jan. 21, 2020
Posted on 01/30/2020

The Newcastle City Council roundups offer a digest of notable items for those who can't make it to the regular meetings. View the meeting agenda packet here and the audio here. View past City Council roundups at newcastlewa.gov/councilrecaps.

NEWCASTLE EARNS HIGH MARKS IN COMMUNITY SATISFACTION SURVEY

Newcastle residents have an overwhelmingly positive perception of the community they call home. The results of the City’s Community Satisfaction Survey show that citizens value Newcastle as a place to live and raise a family.

During the Jan. 21 meeting, Newcastle Councilmembers got a breakdown of the statistically-valid survey administered by nationally-recognized ETC Institute. In his presentation to the Council, ETC Institute’s Ryan Murray praised Newcastle leaders, noting that results show citizens’ satisfaction with City services is much higher than other communities.

“Overall, results are really positive,” Murray said. “Folks are really satisfied living in Newcastle.”

Newcastle scored high marks in community livability, with 92 percent of residents indicating they were very satisfied or satisfied with the overall quality life. That compares favorably to the national average of 72 percent. Similarly, 88 percent of citizens indicated they were very satisfied or satisfied with Newcastle as a place to raise children, far outpacing the regional average of 59 percent.

The City services that residents are most satisfied with are: 1.) Fire and emergency medical services (87 percent), 2.) City parks, trails and open space (87 percent), 3.) Local police protection (81 percent) and 4.) Maintenance of City streets and rights-of-way (79 percent). All of those percentages figure above the national and regional averages. But Murray highlighted in particular the satisfaction with street maintenance, a major deficiency for most communities.

“Newcastle’s strengths are actually most communities’ weaknesses. You should be really proud of everyone that works for the City,” he said, before praising Public Works Director Jeff Brauns.

The survey, which City leaders will use as tool to guide decision-making, also identified opportunities for investment and improvement. For example, the community investment areas that residents thought were most important for the City to emphasize were: 1.) Adding infrastructure to downtown and 2.) Incentivizing development. Additionally, Citizens indicated the City should focus on street congestion management, regulating development and expanding transit options, as some areas for growth.

“This survey will be a valuable tool used to measure the progress of Council priorities and help plan for the future,” City Manager Rob Wyman said. “The residents’ overall satisfaction with the City and their opinions on customer service and programs is critical to our ongoing progress.”

ETC Institute collected a total of 473 surveys representing a demographically-accurate snapshot of the community. Murray praised the thoughtfulness of Newcastle respondents, noting that they spent more time and put more care into the survey than other communities.

Resources:Newcastle Community Survey (Full Report) | Newcastle Community Survey Results (Presentation)

EXAMINING IMPLEMENTATION OF FISCAL SUSTAINABILITY STRATEGIES

As noted in the survey, the City services that residents most value and prioritize are critically important, especially those connected to police and fire protection and street maintenance. However, the price to provide those essential services is not insignificant, with public safety costs in particular growing each year. That’s what is at the root of the discussion as the City Council explores strategies to address operating budget shortfalls forecasted to eclipse $1 million for the foreseeable future.

How did we get here?

Newcastle relies on three revenue sources to fund basic City services like police, fire, and parks and street maintenance: Property taxes, sales taxes and development revenue. With a limited commercial retail base, declining opportunities for development and ever-increasing public safety costs (which remains the City’s largest expense), the City does not currently have the revenue streams to provide the level of service the community desires, as outlined in the survey.

Last year, the Newcastle City Council took a few steps to slash expenses in response to the budget deficit. They voted not to fill the Project Planner staff position, which served as the principal contact on all park projects and improvements, worked closely with Newcastle Trails to foster the development of the prized trail system and pursued grant funding to make it all happen. Additionally, the roles of the Community Activities Coordinator, who coordinates all City events, volunteers and the efforts of the Community Activities Commission, and the formerly contracted Communications Coordinator, who manages the City’s website, social media accounts, email and other outreach, were also combined in an effort to cut staff costs.

However, with a budget deficit forecasted to annually exceed $1 million, cuts alone would not bridge the gap without major impacts to City services that residents value. A cut-only solution would likely require a reduction in police officers, a reduction in maintenance technicians who service parks and plow streets during snow storms, the elimination of summer events and more.

What’s next?

Last year, the City contracted with a nationally-recognized firm to develop a plan that addresses Newcastle’s forecasted financial challenges. The firm, Management Partners, helped develop a list of strategies to resolve the fiscal gap. The financial analysis included everything from expenditure controls and service-level reductions to cost shifts and new revenue streams.

While Councilmembers unanimously acknowledge the City’s projected fiscal gap is real and needs to be addressed, they are still deliberating on how and when to implement action steps. Last year, they approved a budget that requires the use of General Fund reserves to cover the shortfall in 2020, a strategy made possible by previous Council actions to build up a healthy fund balance. However, this approach is not sustainable for the foreseeable future as reserves are drawn down.

The City Council will likely rely on a suite of solutions to fix the projected operating budget deficit. In addition to the cuts already made above, Councilmembers are exploring the possibility of a phased-in approach to a utility tax that would effectively solve the fiscal gap and ensure the City maintains its current level of service. That was the focus of the Council’s discussion during the Jan. 21 meeting. Councilmembers had an opportunity to ask staff questions about the implementation process of a utility tax including timelines and public referendum requirements.

The state legislature allows Cities to establish a utility tax to generate revenues for general operating costs, such as police and streets. Taxes are imposed on any business or public entity providing utility services (Cable, electric, waste, etc.). A utility tax is imposed upon the utility itself, not upon the individual utility customers. Most natural gas, garbage, electric, and telephone utility companies in the state pass these taxes on to their customers. Although it is not a tax on the customer, many utilities list the tax as a separate item on the utility bill since it is part of their business costs. Newcastle is one of just three King County cities without a utility tax.

The City Council did not take any action, but directed staff to bring back answers to their utility tax questions. If a utility tax were to be implemented, Councilmembers would first have to direct staff to bring back a utility tax ordinance. All ordinances require a public hearing, so citizens would have an opportunity to comment before any consideration. Please stay tuned to these City Council recaps (newcastlewa.gov/councilrecaps) for the latest news and updates on further Council actions.

Citizens Voice Support for DeLeo Wall

Another standing-room-only crowd packed the Newcastle Council Chambers to advocate on behalf of preservation efforts for the threatened DeLeo Wall property. In 2018, the Department of Natural Resources approved an application to clear-cut 28 acres of trees on the property located in the southeast corner of Newcastle. The City immediately appealed the decision in an effort to delay the logging and pursue opportunities to preserve the area as open space. The City continues to explore all options to protect the property. DeLeo Wall supporters noted that they are leading a fundraising effort that would help pay for the costs of a full appraisal to establish the property’s fair market value.

The Newcastle City Council wants to hear from you! Members of the public are invited to share thoughts during public hearings or two open public comment periods at meetings. Regular meetings of the City Council occur on the first and third Tuesdays of each month at City Hall, starting at 7 p.m. You can also email your thoughts to Councilmembers. To send a message to the entire Council, email citycouncil@newcastlewa.gov.

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