City Council News Recap | December 1, 2020
Posted on 12/10/2020

THIS IS AN ARCHIVED NEWS STORY FROM 2020 AND THE CONTENTS OF THIS ARTICLE MAY NO LONGER APPLY. FOR THE LATEST COMMUNITY NEWS CLICK HERE.

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 meeting video is posted here. View past City Council roundups at newcastlewa.gov/councilrecaps.


Police Chief Houck Shares Police Stats

Council Adds Back Officer to Fall 2021

Did you know that for 10 hours a day, there is only one Police Officer on duty to protect our community of nearly 13,000 people? Newcastle, which already has fewer officers per capita than all but one similar sized City in King County, does not have the staffing to ensure at least two officers are on duty 24/7. That’s problematic, because under certain circumstances, a police officer cannot respond to an incident unless he or she has backup, forcing an officer to wait until a colleague arrives from a neighboring jurisdiction.

That was the message Newcastle Police Chief Jason Houck shared loud and clear to the City Council as he presented the third quarter crime statistics and commented on a recent Council decision to delay hiring another officer as a way to cut budget costs.

In a passionate speech before the Council, Chief Houck explained that their decision to delay the hiring of an additional police officer until 2022 puts Newcastle residents, visitors, and officers at risk. In 2019, Chief Houck requested the extra officer to protect Newcastle’s growing City and address residents’ biggest concern – traffic complaints.

The new officer was set to join the City in the second half of 2020, however due to COVID-19 impacts and staffing shortages at the King County Sheriff’s Office, the Newcastle Police Department remained at its current levels this year. The preliminary budget called to delay hiring this officer until April 2021. After voters rejected Referendum 2, a measure which would’ve supported public safety costs, the Council voted to further delay hiring this additional officer until January 2022. 

Following Chief Houck’s comments, the Council reversed course later that night and voted to fund the additional officer starting in September 2021. The Newcastle Police Department still does not have enough officers to ensure there are two on duty 24/7, but adding this one gets them closer to providing that service for a growing community of nearly 13,000.

Chief Houck also shared the City’s third quarter crime statistics. While assaults, vehicle thefts and burglaries are down compared to previous years, fraud and car prowls are up. In particular, thefts from autos have doubled compared to the third quarter last year. Chief Houck cannot stress this enough: When you go home at night, take out EVERYTHING from your car. Do not leave valuables in there.

You can watch Chief Houck’s full presentation and comments here. It begins at 5:10 and ends at about 45:00.

Council Continues Budget Cuts

When the preliminary 2021 budget was released this fall, the numbers showed an operating deficit of approximately $700,000. City expenditures are outpacing revenue, because the costs to provide basic City services, especially public safety protection, are rising annually. The problem is Newcastle relies on three income streams (property taxes, sales taxes and development revenue), two of which are hampered by a limited commercial retail base and declining opportunities for development in a small City.

Following the voters’ rejection of Referendum 2, the City does not have the revenue to continue providing the same services residents have come to expect. So, the City Council has spent the past month shaping a 2021 budget that calls for expenditure cuts across every department, impacting service levels to residents across the board.

In November, the City Council voted to cut the 2021 summer events. That means the City’s Fourth of July fireworks show, Concerts in the Park and Newcastle Days will not take place in an effort to cut costs. They also cut the budget for seasonal maintenance workers in half, which will impact vegetation management (weeding) and trail maintenance.

The cuts continued on December 1. In a move that impacts the future of Newcastle parks and trails, the Council voted to further delay the hiring of a project planner until 2022. This effectively puts parks projects and improvements, including the Lake Boren Park Master Plan, on hold for the foreseeable future. The position was a vital resource on parks and trail planning and served as an advocate and engineer for these important amenities as new developments came into the City.

The City will also stop monitoring Lake Boren for public swimming water quality, after the Council voted to cut the program which began this year. The service monitored the lake for E. coli bacteria each week throughout the summer months.

The Council also cut the budget for road striping, electing to perform this service every other year, rather than annually. They also eliminated a $15,000 budget item for snow and ice supplies. Staff noted that responding to winter weather is an essential function, so if snow and ice hits Newcastle in 2021, the City will purchase the supplies necessary to keep roads safe. However, the Council is no longer budgeting ahead for this possibility. 

The preliminary budget also decreases the City’s training and travel expenses by half and eliminates the 3% merit-based salary increase for employees in 2021. 

“This is not a reflection on our staff’s quality of work. As the COVID-19 crisis unfolded, our small staff of employees rose to the call for action, working longer hours, picking up the pieces of unfilled staff positions and responsibilities, all while adapting to a new COVID-19 work environment that certainly comes with its own struggles,” City Manager Rob Wyman said. “However, as the City faces these financial challenges, we all must make sacrifices.”

The Council made various other cuts, eventually bringing the operating budget deficit down to a little more than $300,000. They can use General Fund reserves to cover the remaining shortfall in 2021, a strategy made possible by previous Council actions to build up a healthy fund balance. However, this approach is not sustainable as reserves are drawn down closer to zero.

The City Council is set to adopt the final budget at the December 15 meeting. You can share your thoughts and offer feedback by emailing the Council at citycouncil@newcastlewa.gov.

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. In accordance with public health orders, meetings of the City Council currently occur virtually on the first and third Tuesdays of each month starting at 6 p.m., unless otherwise noted. You can email your thoughts to Councilmembers at citycouncil@newcastlewa.gov.

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