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Money sources a source of worry

Of all the numbers and projects City Councilors kicked around during a long day of work Wednesday, soccer fields at Battle Point Park created as big a stir as any.

One could argue that’s because the project is emblematic of the larger quandary facing the city.

The council wavered for months over whether to pitch in $300,000 toward the estimated $1.4 million cost resurfacing of the fields, before finally committing to the effort last year. But now there’s little money, and no easy way to move ahead.

Punting, councilors agreed, was not an option this time.

But shifting field – or, more accurately, funding sources – was up for discussion, as leaders looked for the best way to keep their commitment to the project amid a severe revenue shortage that has all but crippled the city’s capacity to complete capital work over the next two years.

One option was to stay the course and fund the project with cash. Doing that would mean cutting more from an operating budget that has been reduced by nearly 15 percent over the past half year.

Or there was a newly proposed option – councilmanic debt – that would put the city on the hook for more debt service, something most agree the city can ill afford to do.

“Municipalities cannot do capital projects without bonding,” Councilwoman Debbie Vancil said. “I know that. But we’re not talking really about a capital project here. We’re talking about supporting a community organization and yet we’ve said no to every single other community organization because we don’t want to bond. My support of this project was never to borrow money to do it.”

Vancil’s position won out in the end, as the council voted 4-2 (Kim Brackett was absent) to fund the project with cash.

The move was part of a marathon day of financial work at City Hall aimed at defining and increasing capacity to complete projects. Councilors held a six-hour, morning-and-afternoon session, followed by a brief one- hour meeting in the evening.

When the night was through, $2.7 million in cuts had been approved (see box), and leaders had laid the groundwork for their newly revised capital planning efforts.

The plan had originally been slated for approval at the end of the month. Now, following the recent financial upheaval – revenue could be off as by as much as $2.5 million by the end of the year if trends continue – the city is delaying a planned shift to a biennial budget and won’t take a final vote on the capital plan until December.

Jay Derr, one of the city’s attorneys, on Wednesday outlined the city’s obligations under the state Growth Management Act to complete capital work.

Maintaining infrastructure is among those obligations, he said, whether adequate funding exists or not. The city could lower its service standards, though councilors agreed that wouldn’t be a popular move.

Derr said lowering the bar couldn’t happen without a lengthy public process.

Councilors spent much of the day mulling the possibility of new funding sources. Without tapping hitherto untapped money streams, the city’s capacity will be almost nonexistent between now and 2011, finance staff has said.

A local Motor Vehicle Excise Tax that would charge islanders $20 per year per registered vehicle was again discussed. One thing to consider is whether the county decides to tap the same stream, said Association of Washington Cities representative Ashely Probart, who gave councilors a presentation on the issue.

Without a public vote, islanders wouldn’t have to pay more than $20 per vehicle regardless, he said, but the percentage of the funds going toward Bainbridge projects could depend on which jurisdiction – the county or city – strikes first.

Other possible funding sources include as much as $12 million in voted bonds – likely for open space and non-motorized transportation projects – that could go on the November ballot. The school district is also considering placing a bond issue before voters, either in February or November of 2009.

Meanwhile, rising utility rates continue to be a concern for some councilors. So too is the little talked about but massively expensive sewage treatment plant upgrade.

Initially estimated between $6 and $8 million, planners now say the project could cost as much as $14 million. The result will be sharp rate increases for utility customers, Finance Director Elray Konkel said, though the extent of the hikes remain to be seen.

Other utilities have already seen severe rate jumps recently. Stormwater management rates have doubled over the past four years, and are projected to increase by as much as 35 percent next year. Part of that is due to undershot projections by the finance staff, Konkel said. A rate study will be conducted later this year to help guide city utilities in the future.

The city also is in the process completing an inventory of city-owned land, with the idea that some parcels could be sold to raise money. There will be public hearing at Wednesday’s council meeting regarding the potential sale of the 14-acre Suzuki property, at the corner of High School and New Brooklyn roads, proceeds from which could go toward a new police and court facility.

Other projects, including a renovated senior center, have been put off indefinitely.

As for the soccer fields, the choice between cash funding or debt was arrived at circuitously, in a debate that, like the ongoing financial problems, was prone to sudden change.?

“My colleagues have persuaded me with good reason – I’m going to vote against my own amendment,” said Councilman Barry Peters, whose shift in course ultimately swayed the vote.

“I think it’s more important that we keep a commitment to the community than that we do it in one format or another.”

Community Events, April 2014

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