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City set to cut capital projects

Soccer fields, senior center could be among the casualties.

Late last year, the cuts at City Hall went deep.

They’re about to get deeper, as leaders scramble to make up for a drastic dip in revenue that they say will greatly impact the amount of work the city is able to complete during the next few years.

Even if things turned around tomorrow, said Finance Director Elray Konkel, the city would need several years just to catch up to where it was last year.

“We have no capacity,” Konkel told the City Council Finance Committee on Tuesday. “We can’t do it.”

Konkel’s “it” was nearly all-encompassing, with expenditures on both the capital and operating sides of the ledger likely to see major reductions.

Several high-profile projects – including soccer fields at Battle Point Park, the planned renovation of the senior center, road maintenance and non-motorized work – will be cut if councilors heed a recommendation presented by city staff this week.

The city’s capital plan won’t be finalized until June, but leaders say only a few projects – mostly those the city is already committed to – are likely to move ahead in 2008.

On the operating side, reduced spending on professional services and a hiring slowdown are part of $700,000 in staff-recommended cutbacks aimed at offsetting the shortfall. The new measures, combined with some $2 million in reductions made to the operating budget at the behest of last year’s council, would equal a 12 percent total lowering of operating costs.

Staff is also recommending the city freeze of $500,000 in contingency funds.

Cuts to the capital plan would require council approval, but some of the other measures are already being implemented.

Leaders on Tuesday again addressed the city’s declining financial situation, which has been at the forefront of council discussions in recent weeks.

Finance staff is projecting as much as a $2.5 million revenue shortfall by the end of the year, based on the extrapolation of first-quarter data. The plunge has mostly been attributed to a slowdown in construction and real estate on the island, from which the city draws a great deal of its revenue.

Still, Konkel said the present problems weren’t entirely unforeseen.

“I think we as an organization should have made our concerns more vocal when we did a rather drastic change to the (building and development services) fee structure two years ago and the revenue increase didn’t materialize,” he said.

The change was made in late 2006, to bring fees in line with costs.

To be safe, Konkel said the finance staff has projected the current revenue trends to continue into the next several years.

Some wondered about the accuracy of the projections, and whether they’re too conservative.

“I’m not sure that I’m comfortable that three months of data should be projected into six years, which is the way it looks right now,” said Mayor Darlene Kordonowy. “That’s just not a good way for us to be doing business – but it’s a good way to start.”

New City Administrator Mark Dombroski this week sent a memo to city staff advising them of the city’s plan.

“I am asking each department director to prioritize their work plans and report to me what changes will need to be made as a result of these expenditure reductions,” Dombroski said in the memo. “While we will make every effort to maintain existing levels of service, I fully understand that these reductions will impact our operations.”

Councilors will continue to address the shortfall as they craft the capital plan over the next two months.

Meanwhile, as leaders cut expenses, the biggest project of them all – planned utility repairs to Winslow Way – is set to go before the council Wednesday.

Aside from a lack of money, some are worried about a lack of information needed for councilors to make the Streetscape decision.

Approval of a $1.3 million design contract with Seattle firm Heery International would carry the project through design, and keep it on track for a spring 2009 groundbreaking. Funding beyond 2008 remains uncertain, particularly since the city’s bonding capacity is severely limited.

Results of the recently completed Community Priorities Survey, designed to rank capital projects based on public desire, won’t be officially presented until April 30, a week after the Winslow Way decision is made.

Despite rumors to the contrary, councilors will be able to view draft results prior to voting on the project, according to Councilwoman Hilary Franz, who chairs the committee in charge of the survey.

Results of the long-awaited random telephone survey are still in raw data form, Franz said. Their public release is being delayed to avoid skewing the results of a separate online poll – essentially a non-scientific version of the phone survey – that can be taken at the city’s Web site until April 23.

“No data has been released to the public and the results are being held by the consultant (conducting the survey),” Franz said.

The Winslow Way project, which has been trimmed considerably of late, remains contentious among both leaders and community members.

With a 4-3 vote on April 9, the council directed project manager Chris Wierzbicki to bring forward for approval a contract to Wednesday’s meeting. Planners say the contract needs to be approved soon to avoid delaying the project by a year.

“The tough part is that an economic downturn is often a good time to do big projects,” Konkel said. “It’s easier to pad things in a good economy. We’d probably get a pretty competitive bid.”

Others feel that, given the city’s shaky finances, a delay would be prudent.

“This is the challenge on this whole project,” Councilwoman Kim Brackett said. “We’ve done this project without funding sources. I love the favorite line, ‘it’s budgeted.’ What I have found out as a council member is there’s no money behind those numbers. ”

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