It was an evening that included everyone from the former mayor to the designer of the local golf course chiming in on the municipal budget, but when the final votes were counted Tuesday, the Liberty Lake City Council sounded the bell on a 6-percent tax on utilities that will be in effect before the end of the year.
Ordinance No. 188 will add approximately $825,000 annually to the general budget, helping to narrow a $700,000 deficit forecast for 2011 with residents paying the tax on phone, gas, cable and electric services. The impact on the average Liberty Lake household is anticipated to be around $200 each year, according to Doug Smith, the city’s community development director.
Liberty Lake Mayor Pro Tem David Crump pointed out on Tuesday that the city has included a provision in the ordinance to review the tax after six months and again in a year. He added that any increase to the fees collected beyond 6 percent would need to be voted on by residents.
As for recent reductions in the general budget, Crump said the city is watching every nickel and dime, finding savings in cuts to travel, watering and fertilizing of city grounds, the municipal newsletter and more. City Council raises were also bypassed for 2011 while some $1.3 million has been reduced from the budget since 2008.
Several residents in the standing-room-only crowd at City Hall expressed frustration with some of the proposed cutbacks involving current staff at the library and city-owned golf course, Trailhead at Liberty Lake. Both full-time employees at the golf facility, manager and head pro Mollie Thola and groundskeeper Ron Knudson have recently been informed by the city that the course will move to a seasonal schedule with plans to close on Nov. 12 and open sometime in the late winter or spring, depending on the weather.
Meanwhile at the library, two more full-time employees, including librarian Pamela Mogen, plus a part-time employee were told of a potential reduction in weekly operating hours from 46 to 24.
John Loucks, president of the library board, said it was “unfair” for the library to shoulder the burden for the city’s budget woes, especially in light of the popularity of the venue.
“We need to ask some important questions here,” Loucks said.
Ron Johnson, a golfer, said Trailhead will likely lose revenue with cutbacks in lessons. He and others also expressed concern that the quality of the grounds will suffer if Knudson departs.
“With letting these two go, what are you going to do next year to bring in money,” he said.
Council Member Susan Schuler emphasized that the “city sees cuts at the library and golf course as temporary,” prompting several in the crowd to wonder aloud what the city plans to do if employees like Knudson and Mogen find other jobs in the interim.
Steve Peterson, who served as Liberty Lake mayor from incorporation in 2001 until he was defeated by Wendy Van Orman in November 2007, strongly criticized the council for implementing a utility tax and chipping away at municipal services.
“I think there is a good deal of misunderstanding among the public as to the direction the city is taking right now,” Peterson told the council. “I think we need to sit down and look at what our priorities are and where we’re going.”
Judi Owens, one of three original council members still serving from the inaugural governing board, reiterated that the final budget has not been approved, even though employees affected by the proposed reductions have been given notice. Van Orman will present her version of the budget at the next council meeting on Nov. 2.
Schuler was one of several council members to acknowledge the abundant gathering at City Hall, a venue that typically includes only a slight turnout of citizens for most council meetings.
“I would encourage you to attend more meetings of your city government,” Schuler said. “I’d prefer to see people participate in the process instead of after the process.”
In addition to the applause heard after the vote to approve a new tax, citizens like Mary Munger made it a point to stand up for city leaders working on behalf of residents.
“They spend hours and hours working on these issues,” she said. “If you come to this city with a hope and a vision, they will help you find a way.”