Council stumbles, fails to adopt '08 budget

It was supposed to be a night for closure.

On the agenda for the year’s final City Council meeting were the retirements of three of the seven councilors, and the end of the 2008 budget process.

But instead of tying up loose ends, staff and councilors couldn’t even agree on where to start.

“I can’t vote on numbers I don’t understand,” said Councilman Nezam Tooloee, as the council on Wednesday discussed how to approach several unresolved budget issues.

Tooloee wasn’t alone in his confusion – all shared in the frustration as leaders failed to find common numbers from which to work. Because the budget remained unfinished at the end of the evening, there will be special City Council meetings at 9 a.m. Monday and 6 p.m. Wednesday.

This week’s problems stemmed from an 11-hour budget session a week earlier, at which councilors directed staff to slash $2.5 million from the operating budget and rebuilt the capital projects list to reduce councilmanic debt.

Finance Director Elray Konkel and City Administrator Mary Jo Briggs said staff made the cuts as directed, but councilors said the revisions presented to them on Wednesday were different than what they requested.

The 2008 preliminary budget presented in October contained about $27.5 million in operating expenses, and councilors said they expected the $2.5 million cut to come from that number.

Konkel said the operating budget has since grown to $28.8 million because of new items inserted by the council, and carryover money from last year.

The $2.5 million in cuts presented Wednesday came from the larger number, rather than the original one.

“You thought one thing, they thought another,” Councilman Bill Knobloch said, trying to explain the discrepancy to his colleagues.

No cuts were made to the current staff, though some planned positions – including a school resource police officer at Bainbridge High School and a full-time affordable housing employee at the city – were eliminated in the revised proposal.

Outside professional services and community service contracts were cut by $1.61 million, a move that will mean service reductions in a number of areas, staff said.

The city’s derelict vessel removal program for harbor cleanup saw a $120,000 cut; funding for the ongoing water resources study was cut by $177,000.

An even larger discrepancy between staff’s proposed cuts and the expectations of councilors was revealed in discussions about planned capital projects.

Last week councilors trimmed the capital projects list until they had eliminated all debt. Then they began reinserting individual projects, with a goal of keeping councilmanic debt under $4 million.

On Wednesday staff returned with a plan that foresaw the issuance of $7.5 million worth of councilmanic bonds to fund projects.

“I don’t really understand how we went from $4 million to $7 million in bonds,” said Council Chair Chris Snow, expressing a sentiment shared by many of his colleagues.

Essentially, staff said, the discrepancy boiled down to haste. Councilors made their cuts last week from a spreadsheet created “on-the-fly” by staff.

The cuts were made as directed, but the point from which council members started making cuts – at the time believed to be about $9 million – was in actuality a much higher number.

As a result, the final amount of councilmanic debt is $3.5 million higher than the figure councilors had aimed for.

“I’m not going to believe it was a $3.5 million mistake,” Tooloee said.

Briggs said time constraints have been the ultimate downfall of the 2008 budget process, which this year included fewer meetings than in years past.

“It took staff three and a half months to create the preliminary budget,” Briggs said. “It took this council one day to dismantle it.”

Councilors on Wednesday held an hour-long budget workshop prior to their regular meeting.

Due to a full agenda that included the swearing in of new councilors and tributes to the outgoing members – Tooloee, Bob Scales and Jim Llewellyn – work on the budget didn’t resume until just before 10 p.m. After an hour, little had been resolved.

“I think our brains are fried,” Councilman Kjell Stoknes said. “We’re not communicating.”

Tooloee suggested approving only operating costs for January and allowing the incoming council to decide on capital projects and the remainder of the budget.

Ultimately, councilors preferred to finish before the end of year. Staff will make more revisions prior to next Wednesday’s special meeting.

Because neither Scales nor Tooloee will be able to attend the finale, some councilors pushed to meet on Monday instead.

“I don’t know if we have the capacity (to make changes by Monday),” Briggs said. “It’s so disappointing at this stage – it’s just not fair to staff.”

Mayor Darlene Kordonowy agreed that Monday was an unrealistic target.

“I don’t think we can get all those shoes in that little box,” she said. “I think everyone is beginning to understand the decisions of the past four years and where they have brought us.”

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