There were no calls for sweeping cuts on Tuesday, nor any declarations of cutting taxes – or positions.
Instead, the Spokane Valley City Council mostly listened quietly, asked a few questions and got a better understanding of the city’s budget – line item by line item and what cuts might mean at 3, 6 and 9 percent.
By the time the seven-hour session was over at CenterPlace – which included just a half-hour lunch break – the council’s prime directive to city staff was to not plan on filling any vacant positions right away. Instead, positions that have allocated funding – such as an administrative assistant to the city manager, for instance – will remain as placeholders, while their budgeted salaries will return to the general fund to help bolster a desired 15-percent carryover rainy-day fund from this year’s $100.3 million in resources.
“My concern is that we look at the trends with real numbers,” said Council Member Dean Grafos, adding that he didn’t want positions earmarked if they don’t look to be filled soon. If -- as the economy improves and revenues climb – new employees could be added later.
Grafos also had concerns that the budget was based on a 7-percent escalation from the outset, and that any cuts were simply a reduction of the inflated number.
Acting City Manager Mike Jackson said, however, that the city has to take into account inflation and other rising prices of the cost of doing government. He pointed to the escalation of the city’s public safety contract with the sheriff’s office – from $16.2 million this year to an expected $17.3 million next year – as an example.
“These costs have gone up,” Jackson said. “We have to look forward.”
Mayor Tom Towey reminded the council members that the budget is a “work in progress” and that the session was “not about cutting, but about evaluating what we’re doing.”
“The end result is providing service to our citizens,” Towey said.
Ken Thompson, the city’s finance director, said there were some costs that city simply must live with at this point. For example, $465,000 a year goes toward rent at City Hall, and another $117,000 is required by law to go to the Spokane Regional Clean Air Agency.
The council has also indicated it doesn’t want to tinker with the law-enforcement contract.
“We can take that off the table,” Grafos said.
When it came time for the various department heads to look at where they could make any necessary cuts up to 9-percent, if necessary, most looked first at reducing the amount of office supplies, copies of documents made and Web site support first.
“Each item doesn’t seem so bad, but when you add them up there’s an impact,” Jackson said.
There were, however, indications from staff that the city would actually save money or potential future expenses if it invested in certain staff positions. Thompson said he planned to add two accountants, for example, to help prepare for annual state audits in 2010 but, after the November election and council turnover last year, changed his mind.
“We didn’t want to find out that the rules of the game had changed,” he said.
Thompson added, however, he could make do without them, if necessary.
“We’ll do the best we can to get the job done, but we may get a little bit behind,” he said.
Jackson agreed, saying the city could miss out on collecting sales tax if errors in reporting aren’t caught.
“We need to look hard at these two positions,” he said.
Council Member Brenda Grassel asked if the city was getting a good “return on its investment” in a $44,000-per-year lobbyist in Olympia. Jackson said the city had managed to secure $500,000 for a new park in Greenacres, for example, plus funding for Discovery Playground at Mirabeau Point.
“That’s a huge return if you attribute it to the lobbyist,” Jackson said.
Bob McCaslin – who was present on the council at the meeting for the first time in several seeks and serves as a longtime 4th District state senator – said he “never supported a lobbyist” for the city, adding that he and other state representatives were “never used” by past council members. He added, however, “I don’t know if you can actually pinpoint what a lobbyist achieves for you.”
When it came time to discuss community development’s budget, Director Kathy McClung said she would like to reinstate a half-time assistant to update the city’s Web site, compile the minutes to meetings and other duties.
“We have fallen behind,” she said.
Mike Stone, city parks director, said there are opportunities for revenue within his department through sponsorships, especially at outdoor movie events at Mirabeau Meadows, which he considered “an absolute goldmine.”
He added that some programs, such as a summer KinderCare program, are sparsely attended and don’t recover costs.
“We could eliminate that with low impact to the public,” he said.
The department also allocates $82,200 annually to a building replacement fund for CenterPlace, which could be reduced or eliminated, he said. Keeping it for future reconstruction, however, “is good foresight,” Jackson said.
Grafos said that CenterPlace and other parks are the “face of the city,” and he would be reluctant to cut in that area.
“I think you’re doing a great job,” he told Stone.
The city’s public works department is broken into three funds: a general fund, streets and stormwater. The budgets in all three areas could be reduced to varying degrees, said Director Neil Kersten, but there would be noticeable drops in service. Conversely, he doesn’t look for projects to spend money.
“If we don’t need it, we don’t spend it,” Kersten said.
While a new police contract will go before the City Council in the near future, Police Chief Rick Van Leuven said it is “difficult to do more with less” in his department.
Even with cost-cutting in the overall budget, Grassel said she was still concerned about decreases in the city’s carry-forward balance to the year 2014.
“It’s my responsibility, as a council person, to make sure we’re living within our means,” she said.
Jackson said the city is always looking toward the future and adjusting its budget.
“This isn’t a spending plan,” he said. “The numbers before you will be different in 2014.”