It’s going to take some work to get Blaine’s budget back on track for the longterm.
At a study session in council chambers on October 21, city staff and council members gathered to take a look at a preliminary budget and find out exactly where they stood on the money line, what personnel requests had been made by department heads and what the city would need to consider changing to keep their governmental spending on track for the future.
“Right now, there haven’t been any changes from our mid-year budget projections,” said finance director Jeff Lazenby in his presentation to council. “Our revenues are 3 percent above our projections, and our expenditures are currently 1 to 2 percent under what we had budgeted,” which, in layman’s terms, means the numbers have panned out for the time being, resulting in a balanced budget for 2014 with a positive cash flow. But, long-term projections based on those same spending trends tell a much different story, and reveal a trajectory that will eventually land the city with an upside-down budget if some pending issues aren’t met head-on.
“If we just looked at the budget on a yearly basis, everything would be great,” said Blaine city manager Dave Wilbrecht. “But, in my experience, that’s how governments get themselves in trouble. It may be a couple of years before this becomes problematic, but it’s important that the citizens and council members start thinking about the long term now.”
With $335,000 in departmental requests pending for the coming year, Wilbrecht said that his job is to analyze, lead and provide good information to the council so they can make well-considered decisions. “I’m giving them their options. The city has hopes and desires to do things,” he said. “But we have to find funding to reach those goals. The council has some really difficult things to look at moving forward. They have a certain level of service they’ve come to enjoy, and they’ll have figure out ways to maintain that.”
Wilbrecht said he is supportive of the requests being made by departments, many of which are the kind of things that were left by the wayside in leaner times, but have compounded to put a bigger burden on remaining city staff.
“The restructuring that was done before has had some unintended consequences,” Wilbrecht said. “Employees are overloaded and we have people getting sick. Things get dropped and things don’t get done. It’s something that needs to be addressed.”
Those long-pushed-aside personnel requests are at the top of the budget issues at present, with the need for more police officers on the roster ranking as the number one priority. “Our police chief is working far more hours on patrol than we would like him to,” Wilbrecht said. “He’s doing an excellent job, but it keeps him from doing all the things a chief is supposed to do. What we would like to see is more officers doing that work. That request has been out there for a long time.”
Other department requests include filling personnel gaps with a court clerk, a facilities manager and a building inspector, as well as conducting a pay and classification study to help determine what kind of competitive pay rates would keep police officers close to home, since concerns abound about losing officers to higher-paying jurisdictions after they are trained. “I say we do the proper professional study and let the numbers fall where they will, and then do what’s necessary,” said council member Paul Greenough.
“If we can get one more body, an 11th officer, we’ll be back to where we were before we started losing people,” said Blaine police chief Mike Haslip, noting that he has two senior officers that can retire at any time. “We also need to rebuild and retrain the staff we have,” he added.
Wilbrecht said council has some tough decisions ahead to make the budget work, including the possible negotiation of a 10 percent pay-in to medical insurance for the unionized city workers.
But, even with that expense potentially decreased, the problem isn’t really solved – it simply kicks the can further down the road.
“Those [revenue and expenditure lines] eventually converge, even though it may not be until a few years down the road,” Wilbrecht said. “That says to me there’s an underlying structural problem with the budget, and council is going to have to make some tough decisions about where they want to spend money.”
The majority of the city’s revenues comes from sales tax.
“We’ve been successful at looking at other sources of revenue outside of taxes and sales,” Wilbrecht said, acknowledging the city’s history of aggressively applying for and receiving grants. “We’re looking everywhere for resources.”
The final budget will be adopted on Monday, December 9 at the regular city council meeting.
In other council news, at the October 28 meeting, council voted 6–0 (council member Charlie Hawkins was absent) to approve an amendment to the city’s State Environmental Protection Agency (SEPA) guidelines that corrected errors in the code and adjusted the thresholds that trigger mitigation fees and extra reviews for would-be builders.
The city is also considering a 1 percent property tax levy increase for 2014, and will vote on the matter at the Tuesday, November 12 regular council meeting.