Liberty Lake Mayor Wendy Van Orman wasted little time setting an optimistic tone at last week’s State of the City address sponsored by the Greater Spokane Valley Chamber of Commerce.
Emphasizing themes like economic growth and a flourishing business environment, Van Orman did her best to put a positive spin on the site of the Aug. 20 presentation – the former home of Agilent Technologies vacated by the company earlier this year. Despite the move – which translated to thousands of lost or transferred jobs, not to mention 250,000 square feet of empty office space – the mayor opted to focus on the future of the facility, now owned by Liberty Lake’s primary developer, Greenstone Homes.
Under the banner of the Meadowwood Technology Office Park, Van Orman said the location could once again represent a major source of economic vitality.
“Today, in particular, is a special opportunity to showcase this amazing facility,” Van Orman said. “As difficult as it was to hear that Agilent Technologies was leaving, the opportunity that Meadowwood Technology Office Park has for new business and the potential of 2,500 to 5,000 jobs is undeniable.”
Such a scenario would be a welcome boon to a municipal budget that has seen a steady decline in tax revenue in recent years. The Liberty Lake City Council has been debating ways to counter a projected $700,000 shortfall in 2011, including the city’s first utility tax and a locally administered transportation benefit district that would levy a fee on car tabs and raise money for road maintenance.
Sales tax revenue dropped by 16 percent in Liberty Lake between 2008 and 2009 while mid-year income is down another 8 percent in 2010. The rate of property tax, meanwhile, has dipped from $2.10 of assessed property value in 2002 to a current rate of $1.55 per $1,000.
Sales and property tax account for 79 percent of the revenue in Liberty Lake’s general fund.
Van Orman noted that Liberty Lake remains one of the few cities in Washington that has not implemented a utility tax. Municipal staff has estimated that the city could generate $850,000 annually by instituting a 6-percent tax on phone, gas, cable and electric services.
The mayor described how the city has cut back on overall expenses at a rate of 5 percent each year while keeping taxes low. In the meantime, Liberty Lake has sought to bolster its budget by seeking out state and federal grants (nearly $855,000 was procured in 2009); exploring cost savings in every city department; implementing an energy conservation program and spotlighting tourism opportunities.
Liberty Lake still boasts the second lowest property tax rate in Spokane County, Van Orman said. The city has also set aside some $1.3 million in a restricted reserve fund.
In discussing discretionary services that could be reduced to improve the budget picture, Van Orman made the case for the library as more of a necessary cog in the municipal wheel. The move to a renovated building last year resulted in an increase of 5,300 square feet in library space while materials circulation is up 20 percent. Grant funding has also been secured for a jobs and career center to be housed at the library.
One way Liberty Lake residents can do their part in contributing to the economic success of their own city, Van Orman said, is to buy local.
“When our business community prospers, so does the city,” she said.
Business growth has been spurred by collaborating with entities like the Valley Chamber and Greenstone, Van Orman added. Entrepreneurships, meanwhile, continue to be a signature of the city, including spinoffs of corporate giants like Hewlett Packard, Agilent and Itron.
“Innovation and investment will bring us out of this recession,” Van Orman said.
The mayor also acknowledged the efforts of the local police force, a department now housed in a new precinct adjacent to the library. Since 2008, Liberty Lake has seen an 80 percent decrease in motor vehicle thefts.
Looking ahead, Van Orman outlined several land use projects in the works including the establishment of a central business district, an upgrade similar to the renovation that took place last summer along Argonne Road in Millwood. When completed, the Liberty Lake facelift will feature wider sidewalks, space for shops and bistros as well as enhanced landscaping along Liberty Lake Road.
“It creates a sense of identity and allows for street parking, street lighting and street/pedestrian amenities,” Van Orman said.
The River District, another neighborhood orchestrated by Greenstone, continues to serve as the barometer for the city’s emerging north side. Van Orman described how the area continues to add “much needed infrastructure for sewer, water, streets and lighting.” The commercial component of the project, known as Telido Station, will be characterized as a “mixed area” with pedestrian and transit elements, Van Orman said.
The mayor also made it clear that Liberty Lake is working to add more “workforce housing” through developments like Hawkstone, a cluster of condominiums and apartments in the east end of the city that provides a more reasonably priced alternative to the sprawling estates bordering any of three municipal golf courses.
“Despite all the challenges, I am once again the optimist,” Van Orman said near the close of her address. “Our city is resilient, our people are resourceful and our opportunities for success unlimited.”