ANACORTES — The city of Anacortes is proposing a $73.3 million budget for 2021, which includes a 1% property tax increase and leaving about a dozen staff positions unfilled next year.
In her budget message Oct. 5, Mayor Laurie Gere said the biggest change this year was transitioning to an annual budget from a biennial budget, which she said will allow more flexibility.
In light of the current economic challenges due to COVID-19, Gere said the city is focusing on keeping departments staffed at current levels, continuing to provide high-quality services, and moving forward with established projects.
“Beyond that, budgets remain static from the previous year,” she said.
The 2021 budget includes a $20 million upgrade to the city’s Wastewater Treatment Plant to reduce overflows of untreated sewage during storms. Gere said the city is looking at grants and a utility revenue bond to pay for the project.
The city plans to expand its fiber-optic network, called Access Anacortes Fiber Internet, to reach another 1,815 residents and businesses next year.
“Widely available broadband access supports job searches, online learning, telemedicine and remote employment,” Gere said.
The network has 363 customers receiving service and 1,607 orders for service citywide, according to Emily Schuh, the city’s director of administrative services. She said across the project’s three pilot areas, the city has captured about 41% of potential customers. The business plan aims for a 35% rate for the network to be self-sustaining.
The city’s sales tax revenues are down about 5.8% — or $236,600 — compared to the city’s budget projections for 2020, though are showing improvement month to month, said Finance Director Steve Hoglund.
The City Council is expected to approve its usual 1% property tax increase this month. The impact to the average Anacortes property owner will be an extra $6.03 a year.
In a budget review Monday night, Hoglund said wages and benefits are the city’s largest expenditure increase for 2021. The increase is mostly due to step- and cost-of-living wage increases negotiated in collective bargaining agreements.
The city is considering cutting about $800,000 from its annual $1.8 million pavement repair budget. Hoglund said the money is being rerouted to the general fund to pay for other services.
Council member Ryan Walters said Monday night he was concerned about deferring roads maintenance, with repair costs increasing as roads deteriorate.
Hoglund said the city has lost about 18 employees through attrition and intends to keep 12 positions open, including a new senior center director, library staff, and staff in parks and street/sewer maintenance.
Council member Carolyn Moulton said it is important to fund parks positions to protect natural areas with the increase in use of trails during the pandemic.
The city intends to fill three open officer positions in the Anacortes Police Department.
At the Monday night meeting, about a dozen spoke in support of filling one officer position with an embedded social worker.
Commenters stated that a trained social worker would be better equipped to help police respond to calls involving substance abuse, domestic violence, homelessness and mental health crises.
Others cited the success of embedded social worker programs at the Skagit County Sheriff’s Office and the Mount Vernon Police Department.
In written comments, others stated that hiring a social worker should be a separate discussion from hiring police officers.
Walters agreed that the issues were separate.
”I don’t think the police are a substitute (for a social worker), nor should they be, and the social worker is not a substitute for the police,” he said.
In a public comment, Katie Eastman, a licensed clinical psychologist and social worker in Anacortes, said even if the City Council does not fund a social worker for 2021, it will have to come up with creative ways to address an increase in mental health issues.
”Most mental health providers in the city are full, and people are calling us from other communities,” she said.
The City Council will continue budget discussions at its Nov. 23 meeting.