The City of Fife is spending more money than it is taking in from taxes and fees. The current two-year general fund of $37 million draws about $600,000 from the city’s cash reserves. That account will run out by 2019 if nothing else changes since expenses are growing at a rate of about 3 percent a year while revenues are growing at just about 1 percent.
One reason for the looming budget troubles involves the ongoing dispute between the city and the Puyallup Tribe over a shift in how a portion of tribal gaming revenues from the tribe’s two casino locations are distributed to non-tribal governments to offset any impact expenses the gaming generates.
A committee of tribal members and local government officials, including those from Fife, Tacoma and Pierce County, decides how 2 percent of the gaming revenues are allocated to agencies and governments each year. That process forwarded the recommendation that Fife receive nothing in 2016 because the city failed to itemize specific expenses linked to the tribe’s gaming activities the way other governments had done. That caused an $850,000 hit to Fife’s budget last year and created uncertainty in future years.
Fife officials contend that the 13-year-old gaming-impact agreement between the tribe and the city does not require specific invoices and has historically been an automatic transfer to the city’s general fund.
Reviewing the city’s budget shows some areas the council could look at, based on comparisons to nearby cities.
Fife, a city of 9,500 people, spends $700,000 a year for legal services, largely provided by its contract city attorney Loren Combs, a principal at VSI Law Group who has served the city for three decades. His retainer is $24,500 a month for city attorney services plus $210 per hour in legal fees if the city finds itself in legal disagreements. The city’s two-year battle with Greybeard Holdings over its marijuana moratorium alone cost Fife $167,000. The city has since settled the case, allowing Greybeard to open The Gallery later this year. The city still has the moratorium, although it is set for review in the coming months.
Milton spends a fraction of that for its legal services. That city of 6,900 residents has a legal fund of just $44,990 for a staff attorney to “provide general legal counsel and related services as well as Municipal Court Prosecution. These services include advising the mayor, council, and all other departments; representing the City in litigation, and preparing legislation for consideration by the Council,” according to its budget summary.
Edgewood spent $180,000 on legal services last year and recently approved a contract with Gig Harbor-based Carol Morris to shave $40,000 off that in 2017. That legal shift came as part of Edgewood’s government institutional process of reviewing all of its contracts at least every three years to serve its 9,300 residents as efficiently and effectively as possible.
“I think cities need to ask themselves those questions periodically,” Edgewood Mayor Daryl Eidinger said. “Every city is different and we are all trying to do what is best for our cities.”
Fife City Manager Subir Mukerjee said the city’s legal fees are actually cheaper than if the city had an in-house legal counsel department, which would require office and file storage space that City Hall doesn’t have to spare as well as the cost of hiring not only a full-time attorney, but a paralegal, an assistant city attorney and additional human resource staffers.
“Suddenly, the costs are higher,” he said, noting that the contract allows Fife to have legal advice when it needs it without those additional expenses, particularly with the high volume of commercial and public building projects in Fife. “With all of the stuff going on, that is the cost of doing business.”
‘Flyer’ now is monthly newsletter
The City of Fife has started a newsletter that will be directly mailed to residents and businesses in Fife. The monthly newsletter replaces the bimonthly “Fife Flyer” pages that for years had been appearing in the Fife Free Press newspaper.
The content of the double-sided, 8.5-by-11-inch, high-gloss newsletter will be created by current city staff and mailed by AlphaGraphics to 5,100 addresses at a cost of $1,883.29, according to price quotes to the city. That cost compares to $1,100 for two tabloid-sized “Fife Flyer” pages in every issue of the bi-monthly Fife Free Press that has a circulation of 8,000, with 7,000 mailed to Fife addresses and the rest delivered to 75 news boxes and businesses around the city. The Fife Free Press also had published the city’s annual report at no charge.
“During the research portion of our rebranding process last year, the number one complaint residents had was that they didn’t feel informed on city issues and topics,” Fife Economic Development & Communications Program Manager Laurel McQuade stated. “We are looking for new and more effective ways to reach them. The cool thing about this direct-mail newsletter is that it appears directly in a resident’s mailbox as one flat sheet. A resident won’t need to open or unfold anything. They will literally be holding city news in their hand, in a scan-able, readable format.”
The city is also preparing to enter a three-year publishing agreement with Seattle-based Philip Publishing to produce a 16-page magazine "Fife City Magazine," twice a year. City staff estimates the magazine will cost $20,000, although advertising revenue is projected to subsidize the effort. The council will decide whether to cover the remaining costs once the advertising subsidy is factored out of the publishing bill or end the contract.
“Should advertising revenues be insufficient to publish any particular issue, the city will have the option not to publish the issue, though the expenses incurred in the preparation of the publication will be the responsibility of the city,” according to a draft of the contract under consideration. “Should the city elect to publish an issue that does not have revenue sufficient to cover the costs, the difference between costs and revenue shall be paid by the city.”
The city will generate all of the content within the publication, which will also be done with current city staff. Production costs, which taxpayers will pay even if the publication is never printed, are projected to be about $2,480 for layout and design, at $155 an hour, and $2,500 for “administrative management to Philips” each issue as well as $1,500 per year for media kits. Any advertising revenue left over after production and printing costs will be split equally between Phillips and the city. The first issue is expected in May.
“In our contract with Philips Publishing it says that we have the option to review the cost vs. ads before we produce the magazine, and if the cost is too high, we can end the contract,” McQuade stated. “Much like any other policy in the city, council directs the policy, but it is up to staff to implement projects. The policy direction here is to try new ways to reach our residents.”
Philips has similar contracts with Lakewood, Auburn and a handful of other cities along Puget Sound. Edgewood published 6,000 copies of its “Edgewood Magazine” five times in 2016 at a cost of $19,055.18, according to invoices to the city.
Edgewood Mayor Daryl Eidinger said the city was looking for a way to provide a low-cost advertising option for the city’s small businesses as well as provide a way to inform residents of city issues, something he says the magazine provides, albeit in less than time sensitive way.
“You certainly have to plan ahead,” he said, noting the calendar items, columns and information have to be written a month or so in advance and be relevant for a month or so after publication.
The current, winter 2017 issue, for example, announces the retirement of Police Chief Ed Knutson that happened in late November, a round up for ordinances the City Council approved between August and November, articles from the planning department about how land-use proposals are approved and Christmas shopping tips.
The Fife Free Press will continue to provide readers with local news, sports and entertainment information every two weeks, without the “Fife Flyer” pages since that city-generated content will now be directly mailed on a monthly basis.
Fife City Council’s recent shuffle of chairs and committee assignments won’t likely be the only leadership changes in the city.
Fife City Manager Subir Mukerjee, for example, confirms that he is in informal talks with the City Council about developing a transition plan as he ponders retirement. He is 65 and has served as Fife’s city manager since January 2015, after former city manager David Zabell left to become the city manager of Pasco. Mukerjee was previously the former Milton city administrator and then deputy city manager of Fife.
“It’s not going to happen tomorrow,” Mukerjee said. “But it’s going to happen sometime. It has been something on my mind.”
The uncertainty created by shifts of city leadership routinely creates ripples of other staff changes as management styles and priorities shift to new administrative teams. One possible sign of that already occurring is that Fife’s former Finance Director David DeGroot retired at the end of last year after seven years at the city. He is consulting with the city through the spring, however, to smooth the transition to the city’s new finance director Patty Luat. Luat’s first day was Jan. 1, after working as the director of finance for Tacoma School District, where she started out as director of internal audit. She holds a Bachelor of Business Administration from Pacific Lutheran University. Her local “street cred” comes from the fact that she once worked at the Poodle Dog.
Fife Mayor Winston Marsh might also be the “x factor” in city politics since he is reportedly battling an illness during his final months of his two-year term as mayor and faces an election in November if he opts for another term.
He did not respond to media requests regarding his plans or his condition. He has lived in Fife since 2007 and served on the council since 2013.
The council selected Bryan Yambe to serve as deputy mayor at its first meeting of the year last month, so he serves as mayor while Marsh is absent through the month.
Yambe, who has served on the council since 2013, replaced former deputy mayor Pat Hulcey, who has served on the council since 2010.
The duties of deputy mayor are largely ceremonial and not as much of a time commitment as mayor or even some council committee assignments. The deputy mayor runs the City Council meetings if the mayor is not available and serves for a one-year term. The mayor, who is appointed by the council, serves a two-year term, so Yambe will be the deputy mayor until that vote next winter.