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Budget passage earns applause

At City Hall, the holidays arrived with all the traditional trimmings.

There were large gatherings and occasional quarrels. On the big day, wish lists were only partially fulfilled, and some familiar faces couldn’t be there to share in the fun.

Still, despite some disappointment, the final City Council meeting of the year included a celebratory song – played by clapping hands – following passage of next year’s $54.2 million budget.

“That’s really music to my ears,” said Council Chair Chris Snow, after unanimous approval of the budget set off applause in the council chambers.

Wednesday’s celebration was tempered by several lingering issues, foremost among them the city’s unfinished $94 million capital plan, which councilors won’t decide on until early next year.

The council voted 3-2 to defer the plan, saying it hadn’t been thoroughly vetted. Snow and Councilman Jim Llewellyn voted against the deferment; Nezam Tooloee and Bob Scales were absent, though Tooloee earlier expressed his wish to see the plan deferred.

Two of the more prominent items on the capital list – the the Winslow Way Streetscape – were discussed at length Wednesday.

Councilors earlier this month approved nearly $4 million in funding for the Quay, a 71-unit complex near Waterfront Park that remains one of Winslow’s last remaining bastions of affordable housing. Affordable housing advocates hope to purchase the Quay to prevent it from being bought by developers and converted to market rate housing.

The city’s contribution, like $1 million collected from private donors for the purchase, is contingent on the completion of an appraisal and other due diligence.

The budget includes $1.6 million for the project next year, but the capital plan shows that 2009 funding would be subject to a public vote.

Quay backers told councilors that sends the wrong message to donors and lenders, who wouldn’t likely participate in the deal if they have reason to doubt the certainty of the city’s funding.

“There has to be a commitment,” said Ed Kushner, who is helping with the deal. “We cannot go forward with only a short-term commitment because it ain’t gonna fly.”

Kushner said those working on the deal don’t object to the use of voted bonds for affordable housing, but using them to fund the Quay – given the tight timeline and the likelihood that a bond measure wouldn’t go to voters until late next year – would endanger the deal.

Some councilors responded that they have committed to funding the project, and that the ultimate source of 2009 funding doesn’t need to be confirmed right now, since it could change later anyway.

“There is not overwhelming enthusiasm for this project throughout the voting public on the island,” Snow said. “It may be asking a bit much to make a commitment beyond what we already made.”

In response to an earlier quip by Kushner about swapping funding sources for the Quay with those of the Streetscape project – which is slated for councilmanic debt after 2008 – Councilwoman Debbie Vancil said the following:

“It wasn’t just funny,” she said, “it was a good idea.”

Councilors on Monday voted to pay for all 2008 Streetscape work with utility fee revenue, a move that formalized the oft-criticized funding plan for the project. The plan for now splits costs roughly in half between councilmanic bonds and utilities; planners will present alternative funding strategies next year.

On Wednesday, Streetscape Project Manager Chris Wierzbicki was going to seek council’s approval of a $900,000 contract to continue work next year.

Instead, he recommended the decision wait until after the new council is installed in January.

Wierzbicki stressed the importance of keeping the project on schedule for groundbreaking in 2009, but said it was equally important to have the community’s and councilors’ support.

“We’ve done a very good job explaining to the community why this project is so important,” he said. “(The decision to wait) is about confidence building. It’s not about stopping, it’s not about deferring the project.”

As in past meetings, comments from the public focused on what some perceived as a lack of public involvement in the budget process. Many spoke in favor of the Quay, whose fate will become clearer, along with the rest of the council’s unfinished business, after the first of the year.

“Expediency is not a reason to forgo fiscal responsibility,” Knobloch said of delaying the capital plan.

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