Literature and local links ranked low on the list of municipal features in a recent citizen survey of Liberty Lake budget expenditures.
Facing a $700,000 deficit in 2011, Mayor Wendy Van Orman and the Liberty Lake City Council asked residents to chime in on the current lineup of city services – a total of 150 respondents provided feedback regarding various priorities with the municipal library and the city-owned Trailhead Golf Course lagging well behind areas such as law enforcement and street maintenance.
The city has already cut $1.3 million from the general budget since 2008 and is looking for further cost savings to counteract a dip in returns from sales tax and property tax, two revenue sources that comprise 79 percent of city’s general fund. Van Orman has already brought up the possibility of a utility tax that would levy a 6-percent fee on phone, gas, cable and electric services, raising approximately $850,000 in 2011.
Of those who took the survey, one-third opposed raising taxes. Van Orman said the information included in the poll gives city leaders a better understanding of the value citizens place in various services.
“It really was beneficial to hear from the community,” she said.
Trailhead Golf Course, a 63-acre tract purchased by the city in 2002, has developed into one on the area’s most popular golf sites. The city has continued to make improvements to the course, which generates between $350,000 to $400,000 a year in revenue, according to Doug Smith, Liberty Lake community development director.
Still, the city owes around $2 million on the original purchase and based on the current market – a 150-acre golf course in Deer Park recently sold for $1 million – Smith and others have indicated that selling the venue would not make financial sense.
“We would be losing money if we sold it,” Van Orman said.
The roots of the city library go back to 2002 as well, when a citizen-led group spurred the launch of a small site near the first home of Liberty Lake City Hall in the Liberty Square Building. By 2004, the city decided to break away from the Spokane County Library District and form its own municipal library.
In July 2008, the city purchased a 37,500-square-foot building once used as an industrial warehouse for $2 million and set aside another $675,000 to renovate the space into the new headquarters of the library and the police department. In March of last year, the library opened to rave reviews.
Now Librarian Pamela Mogen is concerned about the future of the venue after the library ranked just one spot ahead of the golf course in the lower tier of budget priorities.
“We were hoping for better than fifth place,” Mogen said. “I think it reflects a short-sightedness on what community means.”
There has been talk of cutting back library staff and closing one or two days a week to recoup costs, though Van Orman maintains that “the community relies on the library” for everything from help finding employment to affordable entertainment options. Citizens currently pay 50 cents per every $1,000 of assessed property value to fund the library.
Council Member Odin Langford, who sits on the city’s finance committee, said intermittent closing of the library and/or golf course might be a way to save money, though selling Trailhead would likely mean “it wouldn’t be maintained as a greenspace.”
Langford said he “still has to hear more about the utility tax” and opposes any new taxes “except as a last resort.”
There has also been talk of installing a municipal transportation benefit district that would apply a charge to vehicle license renewals and generate money for street maintenance. The City Council can implement a $20 per tab fee without a public vote, although Van Orman noted the city already has a TBD in place that provides financial support for maintenance of Liberty Lake’s extensive trail system. The city has also discussed forming a municipal parks district which would resemble a TBD.
Council Member Josh Beckett, another member of the finance committee, said he is hesitant to place too much stock in the citizen survey since it represented only a small percentage of the citizen base. He claims to be “more realistic” about the potential for new taxes and said Liberty Lake “has been fortunate to go this long without a utility tax.” As for the city’s property tax rate, only Deer Park collects a lower percentage than Liberty Lake among all jurisdictions in Spokane County.
“I realize it’s politically popular to say you’re not going to raise taxes, but it’s important to paint a clear picture,” Beckett said. “There has to be a point where you take a leadership position.”
Van Orman said city staff should have a draft of the 2011 budget by the Oct. 19 City Council meeting. The state requires that each jurisdiction establish its completed budget by the end of December.