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Minor miracle may bring accord on ‘08 budget

Adoption is slated for today, after the council votes to cut councilmanic debt.

Last month, City Council Chair Chris Snow suggested that prayer might be the only way to forestall problems with the 2008 budget process.

This month, there’s no telling if the budget – which councilors hope to approve tonight – benefited from divine guidance. But Snow and his colleagues believe they partook of a minor miracle on Monday.

“Pretty much our prayers have been answered,” he said, after councilors and city staff moved closer to finalizing the budget.

“This is as good budget as we can expect under the circumstances.”

Those circumstances include a series of contentious budget meetings that boiled over last week when leaders couldn’t agree on a common set of numbers from which to work.

At a special meeting Monday, the council’s biggest goal – cutting councilmanic debt from $9.5 to $4 million – was met after councilors voted 6-1 in favor of a proposal by Councilman Nezam Tooloee to shake up funding for the Winslow Way Streetscape project.

Under the new plan, which would be finalized with passage of the budget, $1.3 million in Streetscape spending is slated for 2008.

That amount matches what was spent on the project this year and is $500,000 less than the amount proposed by staff.

Instead of being paid for by councilmanic debt, funding would come from utility fees.

The cost shift would mean a rate increase projected by Streetscape Project Manager Chris Wierzbicki at one or two percent beginning in 2009. Rates would have increased eventually to pay for the work, he said, this just moves the hike up.

Councilors have continually said the funding plan for the project – which as it stands would split costs roughly in half between bonds and utilities – lacks clarity. Earlier this month they directed staff to come back with more alternatives.

Tooloee said the goal of his proposal on Monday was to formalize the current plan until those alternatives can be decided on by the council.

The motion, he said, is meant to act as a “placeholder” – since the general fund paid for Streetscape work this year, Tooloee said work next year should be funded by utilities, especially since most agree that utilities are the essential element of the project.

“Nearly everyone agrees this needs to be done,” he said. “The bugaboo is how it’s going to be funded.”

Streetscape Project Manager Chris Wierzbicki said the solution is a fair one.

“It gives us the opportunity to keep doing what we’re doing,” he said.

The funding would carry the work through the 50 percent design phase – scheduled to wrap up in May – at which time the alternative funding strategies will be presented.

Councilman Bill Knobloch was the lone dissenter in the vote. He said the city is overspending and the project shouldn’t move forward without the blessing of the community. The move, he said, would essentially be a tax increase.

“We don’t have the revenue to go into this kind of debt,” he said. “Basically we are raising the taxes of our constituency without their opinion.”

No additional cuts were made to either the operating or capital budgets, though councilors did direct staff to cut $700,000 from the operating budget to fulfill an earlier request that wasn’t met.

The final 2008 budget and Capital Facilities Plan is slated for approval tonight at 6 p.m. at City Hall. Neither Councilman Bob Scales nor Tooloee will be present; Tooloee said the council should pass the budget and leave the CFP to the next council.

Councilwoman Debbie Vancil said she’s pleased overall with the budget.

“I feel especially good that we’ve established a platform for the next council,” she said. “The basic budget policies are established.”

She also appreciated steps taken by councilors to improve the city’s reserve funds. Despite some turmoil, she said the budget process was ultimately a positive one.

“This is the first year that the council, community and staff actually worked together to wrestle this to the ground,” she said.

Others were more critical, including Bainbridge Resource Group members Bob Fortner and Dennis Vogt, who on Monday said the process lacked public participation.

“The budget process has been seriously compromised from the outset to today,” Fortner told councilors. “Due to the lack of relevant information the council and the public have been observers, rather than participants in the process.”

Snow agreed that future budgets need greater transparency and more public involvement.

“It was messy, to put it mildly,” he said. “But we ended up with a pretty good product and a clear indication of what needs to be fixed.”

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