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Capital plan sees accord

Having reached general accord on which projects should be funded, City Councilors on Wednesday moved closer to passing the 2008 capital plan.

No major changes were made – money remains in the plan for the Streetscape, senior center, soccer fields and a new police and court facility, among other projects – and a final vote will come Wednesday.

But as they prepare to work through long-term capital goals, councilors are wondering whether the city is ready for a predicted economic downturn.

“If the economy flattens out or actually goes down in some cases,” said Council Chair Bill Knobloch, “will we still have room to pay our debt?”

The question, posed to finance staff Wednesday, stemmed from a review of revenue projections.

The city expects $28 million in revenue in 2008, $4 million of which will come from grants. The remaining $24 million is an increase of 7.5 percent – spending is set to increase 5.8 percent – over last year – on par with historical trends, according to Finance Director Elray Konkel.

But as he and others noted, trends are prone to change.

“(Projections) come not without the possibility of failure,” Konkel said. “We have tried to stay conservative while still trying to stay realistic. If the revenue train starts to slow down, then the underlying expenditure train needs to slow down with it.”

That means adjustments could be made later should the economy take a turn for the worse.

Last year’s council cut councilmanic debt for this year to $4 million. The city also plans to seek $7 million worth of bonds that would require voter approval.

Aside from the approval mechanism, councilmanic and voted bonds differ in that voters, by saying yes, have in the form of property taxes a built in vehicle to pay off debt. Since Initiative 747 capped the amount that property taxes can be raised each year, cities must find other revenue sources to pay for non-voted debt.

The city is still determining how to structure a voted bond measure. Planners have contacted several firms to conduct a survey that would better define community priorities.

Much of Wednesday’s discussion focused on the $20.6 million Streetscape project. Funding for this year’s work is scheduled to come entirely from utility revenue, but councilors stressed that no new funding for the project – even if it’s included in the capital plan – is guaranteed until specific contracts are approved.

Despite the possibility of later change, Knobloch said the capital plan should be viewed as a commitment. Otherwise, the city runs the risk of pushing projects forward only to have funding pulled later.

Councilors still had a number of questions about the funding and scope of the Streetscape, which would repair failing utilities beneath the Winslow Way while also improving above ground features.

“Even though this is in many ways a prosperous economy, we still feel we have considerable pressures and considerable caution weighing on us as we think about how much debt we can afford,” Councilman Barry Peters said.

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