In opening discussion on Mayor Gere’s 2015 City Budget, City Council members have lots of questions on her proposal to a City Attorney and a Public Defender as city employees to replace contract hires.
The proposal would cost about $341,000 in payroll costs, plus benefits, which would be offset by the current cost of contract attorneys of about $130,000, according to City Administrative Services Director Emily Schuh.
At Monday night's Council meeting, City Council member Matt Miller had lots of questions about the actual benefit in adding new employee positions and a warning about future costs, including future pay hikes. “I need a full cost analysis,” he said.
Miller also questioned how the Mayor could propose a budget for next year that is 3.9-percent higher than this year while only adding one-percent in new tax revenue. The 2015 budget proposal includes a one-percent hike in property tax revenue, the maximum allowed without a public vote.
The Mayor’s $48.9-million budget includes spending about $300,000 more than anticipated revenue. Mayor Gere told the Council her budget draws from the city’s reserve funds to make up the shortfall. But, she said “If we really need these positions, then we need to figure out how to fund them in the future.”
The 2015 budget spends about $1.8-million more than the current year’s budget.
Council discussion followed a public hearing that included testimony from a half-dozen people, most of whom urged the Council to put a City Attorney on staff.
Activist Sandra Spargo told the Council, “The city needs a full-time employee City Attorney for the greater good of the people.”
Vernon Lauritzen said the city needs the skill set of a staff attorney, citing the 2016 Comprehensive Plan update, now under way, anticipated re-writes of municipal code and to be available for every day review of legal matters.
The City hasn’t had a City Attorney since Ian Munce resigned his dual role of City Attorney and Planning Directory six years ago. Since then Mount Vernon attorney Brad Furlong has contracted as the city’s part-time attorney.
Council discussion turned to the proposed hiring of a staff Public Defender to replace the current contract public defender.
Administrative Director Schuh explained that other Washington cities are putting Public Defenders on staff following a court ruling that she said has cost Mount Vernon $2.5-million and reset the maximum number of cases a Public Defender can take on in any given year.
The ruling makes it more difficult to hire contract attorneys who also want to pursue their own legal business.
Schuh said the case limit may be higher than Anacortes anticipates, but she said the current Public Defender said if he were put on the city payroll, he would take the time to explore the root causes of issues that come to Municipal Court.
Walters said the issue is not just about risk analysis, but about compliance with the law. “This is about constitutional rights of poor people.”
Miller said, “This is more complex than saying the solution is hiring a full time Public Defender.”
The City Council will continue the discussion next Monday. Meanwhile, the public hearing remains open until then.