Third ferry casualty in budget

"Bainbridge Island ferry service won't be cut this summer - with the exception of the third boat introduced during peak tourist season last year.But the prospect for rolling back city taxes don't look as bright as they did a month ago. Those are among the results of the stop-gap state budget that the Legislature passed Thursday, after the close of second special session in Olympia.For such a difficult process, we did rather well, said Sen. Betti Sheldon (D-Bremerton). The budget dealt in part with the impact of Initiative 695, which dramatically reduced the Motor Vehicle Excise Tax and knocked an almost $800 million hole in the state budget.Under the budget agreement, the ferry system will have total operating funds of $291 million through the biennium ending June 30, 2001, a reduction of $12 million from the pre-I-695 budget. While that budget will require reduction of some late-night and low-season ferry service on other runs around the sound, the Bainbridge Island run will not be affected. Nor will there be a fare increase until at least July of 2001.But Rep. Phil Rockefeller, D-Bainbridge Island, said Friday that long-term preservation of the ferry system is still very much up in the air.We are drawing down both the ferry system reserves and the general fund reserves, Rockefeller said. By the end of the biennium, the ferry system reserves will be gone. So we have postponed the problem, not solved it.Neither was the news particularly good for the city of Bainbridge Island. The MVET had provided supplemental money to cities such as Bainbridge Island that have a small retail base and concomitantly small sales-tax collections - but equalization funds wiped out by I-695.Before the initiative, Bainbridge had expected to receive $893,000 in equalization funds in 2000, and $1.263 million in 2001. The new budget gives the city only $143,000 in 2000 and $285,000 in 2001, a total two-year loss of some $1.73 million.Anticipating the possible passage of I-695 and loss of equalization funds, the city council last fall increased the property tax rate beginning in 2001, and raised other fees. In that sense, the restoration of even $428,000 was something of a windfall.Every little bit helps, city finance Director Ralph Eells said Friday. He repeated earlier comments that the city might be able to roll back some of the increases, but was less sanguine than he had been earlier, when several Legislative budget proposals would have treated Bainbridge more generously.At this point, the forecasts of revenue from other sources aren't accurate enough to know for certain what rollbacks might be possible, Eells said. Other area legislators expressed general support for the budget agreement. Rep. Beverly Woods (R-Poulsbo) admitted that the ferry funding was just a first step, but said the budget was a solid foundation on which to build the ferry system for the future.The budget includes $10.25 million in supplemental ferry funding through June 2001, the rest of the two-year budget cycle, as well as $20 million a year for ferry operations over the next five years.Obviously, I would have live to not have any cuts, Sheldon said. But the reality is, (Initiative 695) happened.Sheldon said the new agreement should take care of most auto ferries through 2003, with passenger-only service covered through mid-2001. This gives us time to look for some solutions - what we need, and how we're going to pay for it, said Sheldon."

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