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Council eyes staff costs as budget is pared

Better efficiency is the buzzword as the 2008 budget is reviewed and refined.

Budgets were meant to be trimmed.

While most can agree to that general notion, consensus is harder to reach when it comes to where – and how much – trimming should take place.

At City Hall, part of the near-term focus is on reducing operating expenses, starting with staff, as recommended by the city’s recent benchmarking study.

The trim may indeed be warranted, said City Council Chair Chris Snow – but trimming should always be done with care.

“The inevitable question is ‘what gets squeezed?’” Snow said. “You don’t want to be too shortsighted or it could make it difficult to provide the services the public has come to expect.”

The City Council will continue its discussion of the $55.3 million 2008 budget tonight at 5:30 p.m., in a workshop prior to its regular meeting.

The session marks the midway point in a process that will culminate with a full-day budget discussion Dec. 5, and the scheduled adoption of the final budget on Dec. 12.

Along with questions from councilors, some of tonight’s discussion will likely be devoted to operating expenses.

The recent benchmarking study – performed by an independent consulting firm to improve the city’s efficiency – said the city’s costs are 15 percent higher than comparable cities on average, and have grown considerably over the past three years.

Those expenses consume nearly 90 percent of the city’s recurring revenues, limiting its ability to fix roads and acquire land, among other projects.

Fifty percent of operating costs are dedicated to staff, which is why there is a push to cut the number of full time positions at City Hall from 152 to 135 by 2009.

The council in July passed ordinance by 2007-13, which would have capped operating expenses and staff salaries and benefits. The ordinance was vetoed by Mayor Darlene Kordonowy because it was drafted as an ordinance, rather than a resolution, and would have too greatly limited flexibility in the budget process, she said.

Four months later, as the city continues crafting next year’s budget, the issue is surfacing again.

Snow said he thinks trimming expenses makes sense, but fears doing so without having a good plan in place could result in the loss of projects or services.

Councilwoman Debbie Vancil said trimming makes sense because, if the changes failed, they could simply be reversed.

“We have to establish a couple of things,” she said. “What’s a reasonable operating base for the city and what level of capital projects can we sustain?”

Vancil’s main concern, though, is with the city’s planned projects.

She said she thinks “more than a majority of the council feel that the proposed funding priorities in this budget don’t reflect council and community desires.”

Too much emphasis, she said, is being placed on growth and development, rather than on “community building” projects like a senior center, open space and affordable housing.

“We need to take care of the folks who are here now,” she said. “We’re talking about spending millions of dollars on developing a transit center at the ferry terminal. Is this a community priority? I don’t think so.”

Questions remain unanswered about whether this year’s radically different budget process – which scrapped long, often contentious budget debates in favor of workshops prior to regular council meetings – will prove more effective than the previous process.

“I guess we won’t know until Dec. 5,” said Councilman Bob Scales, referring to this year’s lone, all-day meeting, at which all budget amendments will be proposed and decided on. “I don’t think our budget discussions (in past years) were necessarily that productive.”

The council that day also will tackle the six-year Capital Facilities Plan, which targets the city’s upcoming capital goals.

Councilman Kjell Stoknes said a proposal by Councilman Nezam Tooloee to trim the city’s overall operating expenses by 5 percent from the previous year in each of the next three years was “a bit draconian.”

“It’s an overreaction,” he said, adding that he would prefer to focus on certain segments of the budget rather than make “global” changes aimed at reeling in spending.

Vancil said she expects the budget will be “dramatically changed” before it’s approved.

Both Vancil and Snow agreed that the new process deserves a chance, though Snow said waiting until the last minute to begin making amendments is a bit unsettling.

“It’s a good time to pray that we’ll get it right,” he said. “I think there’s a possibility of lots of things going wrong.”

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