Mill Creek City Council Meeting, 4/9/19

There were five major topics touched on in this agenda: A settlement agreement with Comcast; the City Manager’s purchasing authority; replacing the City’s bucket truck; a consultant contract; and a brainstorming session about what to do with a piece of city-owned property.

From 2011 to 2017, Comcast failed to collect franchise fees owed to the City on various billing items. Peggy Lauerman, Director of Finance & Administration, explained. Comcast has been found to owe $92,607.17 in underpayment, and $5,000 towards the audit that revealed the discrepancy. The contract between Comcast and the City stipulates that the company may pass along those costs to their current subscribers, at up to 6.99% of charges. The staff’s recommendation was to accept the settlement agreement for the full amount owed.

Council Members were surprisingly reluctant to allow a corporation to pay a $100k debt, but the objections were rooted in a sense of fair play, and other important Mill Creek values. Of universal, major concern, the passing along of the costs to current customers, who may not have been paying bills at the time the undercharges occured. The second objection, first raised by Councilmember Cavaleri, was that accepting the settlement would lead to an outcome very similar to a utility tax, notoriously unwanted by Mill Creek citizens. Eventually, the matter was tabled for further reflection.

The acting City Manager, Bob Stowe, brought up increasing the CM’s purchasing authority, the amount they can approve without a Council vote, from $50,000 to $100,000. The council expressed that, despite their trust in Mr. Stowe, they were uncomfortable with enacting that power into an uncertain future.

Gina Hortillosa, Director of Public Works & Development, presented another superlative PowerPoint presentation, which was both fun and technical. After the lessons learned from our storm response, and learning that the new truck will enable decorating all of the way to the top of the City christmas tree, this was an easy yes from the Council.

The first of two study sessions was listed as “Consultant Contract for Mill Creek Boulevard Land Use and Infrastructure Subarea Plan,” and was presented by Bob Stowe. The contract would be a step towards the redevelopment of Mill Creek Boulevard, between the Town Center and 164th Street. Additionally, certain capital improvement projects will take place simultaneously, which will make those repairs much less costly. The Council had a positive response to the proposition, and staff will bring a formal proposal for a vote at a later date.

Another exciting conversation was on the possible future uses of the Dobson-Remillard-Cook properties. This land, located near the Mill Creek Sports Park, was purchased by the City in 2004, intended for an expansion of City park and recreation services. $50,000 has been set aside in this year’s budget for feasibility studies, so it’s time to start generating ideas.

Brian Holtzclaw laid out the three requirements for any development: It must be a community asset; It must be an asset that helps drive economic growth; and it has to be revenue positive. Several sporting uses were discussed, including the perennial notion of building enough fields to hold tournaments.

John Steckler identified something that the community, including all of the schools, is seriously lacking: a quality performing arts center. This was generally warmly received by the other councilmembers. If elected, I will support the development of an auditorium designed to be the creative heart of the community.

During Audience Communication, I offered a few reflections:

Regarding the Comcast settlement, I’m concerned about the costs that we’ve incurred so far, for attorney’s fees as well as the audit. If I understand correctly, passing on the settlement creates a situation where we went out of the way to turn a 92 thousand dollar loss into more, as well as wasting the time of staff who have been trying to work this out. If the settlement isn’t enacted, and I’m not necessarily saying it should be, I think it would be good to look at how staff and council can be more aligned before money is spent, because it gives me a concern that there might be other areas of inefficiency.

While this wouldn’t be a utility tax per se, it’s money that will be charged on a utility, given to the city. Apparently, a lot of people remember that I advocated for a utility tax two years ago. I want to be very clear, that was only for the simple reason that I didn’t know anything about anything at the time. Having learned more about the pride Mill Creek takes in being one of the few cities who doesn’t charge utility tax, my position has evolved to agree with a statement Councilmember Bond made previously, that a utility tax should only be considered if the city faces a true financial emergency. From that perspective, if you pass on the settlement because it is too similar to a utility tax, I think that logically brings up the question of whether the 5% franchise fees that will continue to be charged are in keeping with the mandate of the citizens.

The Council then withdrew to Executive Session, effectively ending the meeting for the public.