It was a full house at last Monday night’s Ferndale City Council meeting and rightly so as there were some hot-topic items on the agenda.
Before getting to the Monday, April 15th, meeting agenda, Mayor Jon Mutchler called for a moment of silence after fire destroyed parts of the Notre-Dame cathedral in Paris.
The first item was the approval of the meeting’s agenda. Councilmember Keith Olson took exception to an item on the agenda that had not been “vetted by council committee.” Agenda item G – Council Salary was the item in question. A discussion pertaining to a change in the salary for the mayor position had taken place during the last Finance and Administration Council Committee meeting, but, Olson noted, there was no discussion about changes to councilmembers’ salary. A 4-3 vote of the council approved leaving it on the agenda (Greg Hansen, Cathy Watson and Olson opposed).
Discussion of city staff’s proposed “Catalyst Program” appeared to have drawn a many of the meeting attendees. The program will waive city fees for developers of up to 3 qualified new construction projects within the downtown core.
City Administrator Jori Burnett noted the city had been developing the program for over a year and it followed the multifamily development tax exemption approved (5-2 Watson and Olson opposed) by council last year.
Under the proposed Catalyst Program, residential and mixed-use developments that hold the potential to be a ‘catalyst’ for drawing more successful business into the Ferndale downtown core will have their one-time city fees, such as water and sewer connection fees, permit fees and impact fees, waived. It has been estimated by city staff such a waiver represents about $250,000 to as much as $500,000 in city-imposed fees that would otherwise be required to be paid by developers.
The minimum requirements for a development to qualify includes being located in the downtown core area (see graphic above) and:
- Applicant must submit a completed “Intent to Develop a Downtown Catalyst Project” form September 1, 2019
- Project must be a minimum of 3 stories
- Project must be a minimum 15 dwelling units
- Project must be a minimum of 5,000 square feet
- Must be a new construction project
- All onsite parking must be provided within the building footprint or behind the building
- All residential parking must be provided onsite
- Downtown design guidelines must be met
Applications that pass technical review by city staff will be reviewed by a “Catalyst Review Committee” made up of 3 members of the City Council chosen by vote of the City Council, 1 Planning Commission member nominated by the mayor and approved by the City Council and 1 member of the EAGLE Board nominated by the mayor and approved by the City Council.
Each applicant shall be given the opportunity to present their project before the Catalyst Review Committee and committee members are authorized to ask technical questions of the applicants. Committee will then individually “score” each project based on public benefit, architectural design, site design and expected effectiveness as a catalyst. The committee can recommend up to 3 projects to the city council for approval as “Catalyst Projects” to have city development fees waived.
Councilmembers asked City Administrator Jori Burnett to justify declining all this fee income while the city is struggling with how to pay for current infrastructure needs. Burnett said this cannot bee deemed lost income since the projects are not expected to happen without these incentives. In addition, he pointed out, qualified projects will result in not only customers who will live near downtown business but also taxpayers who are expected to begin paying into the city’s general fund just as the water treatment plant is expected to come online.
A public hearing on the matter was held and Executive Director of the Whatcom County Association of Realtors led off the comments with his support of the proposal. Eskridge noted this “investment in our future” has been sought for a long time, remembering initial proposals as far back as the 1990s.
Ferndale resident Anya Milton represented the Ferndale Chamber of Commerce and said they were in favor of the program. She expected it could revitalize the downtown area.
Ferndale resident Elizabeth Behnke commented about her concerns that the cost-benefit was not convincingly in the city’s favor. She also cited current concerns for downtown traffic, pointing out how more downtown residential and business activity would likely only make things worse.
Ferndale resident Victor Boulos represented local developer SYB Holding, Inc. in supporting the proposal. He hoped that more than one project west of 4th Avenue would be eligible (current proposal was for only 1).
Local real estate broker Sarah Fassett spoke on behalf of the Ferndale Downtown Association and supported the proposal. She noted how they have been in contact with a number of prospective businesses over the years yet none have “pulled the trigger.”
Others spoke in support of the proposal.
Councilmembers then discussed the proposal. All but Cathy Watson and Keith Olson voiced support. Watson explained she was not comfortable having people use city services without having to pay – this at a time when the city is struggling to find ways to pay for these services and is facing rate changes.
The proposed ordinance was approved by a vote of 5 to 2 with Olson and Watson opposed.
Discussion about the salary to be paid future elected mayors of Ferndale followed a the aforementioned discussion about adding a meeting allowance to councilmembers’ compensation for meetings attended as a council liaison or committee member. Following a relatively brief discussion, that proposal failed by a vote of 2 to 5 with councilmembers Taylor and Kennedy in favor.
Councilmember Rebecca Xczar said she was bring the proposal back to the council since the last time they discussed it the discussion became more about the current mayor and not about the position itself. She recommended increasing the salary paid the mayor 49% from $1,679 to $2,500 per month ($20,148 to $30,000 per year) effective January 1st, 2020. Lynden was presented as an example of a comparable city who is paying their mayor more at $2,652 per month.
Councilmember Olson took exception to the list of comparative cities provided noting the highest paid mayors on the list do not have a city administrator like Ferndale does so their mayors are expected to have more responsibilities and as a result are paid more.
A public hearing was held on the subject. Most comments were mostly questions about what the mayor is expected or required to do and how many hours a week are needed. The response from council was there is no job description and council cannot make a mayor spend more time if the mayor does not want to.
Councilmembers discussed the proposal. Councilmember Greg Hansen said he was a proponent of a higher salary for the mayor position in the past but now he feels it is premature to discuss it without a job description and expectations in place.
Councilmember Kate Hansen said what was being asked for was not that much for the city to incur.
Councilmember Fred Kennedy (attending via speakerphone) said he supported the increase in the hope it would attract good candidate. He made a motion to have the increase go into effect next month. That motion died for want of a second from the other councilmembers.
Councilmember Xczar’s initial motion was amended to direct city staff to bring an ordinance to the next meeting that would set the salary for future elected mayors at $2,500 per month beginning January 1, 2020. That amended motion was approved by a vote of 4 to 3 with councilmembers Watson, Hansen and Olson opposed.