Council warned of budget woes

City staff forecast a bleak financial future at Wednesday’s budget workshop, even as community groups lined up to plead for more money.

“We may have a train wreck on the horizon,” said Councilman Bob Scales.

Finance Director Elray Konkel warned councilors that the city’s revenues are likely to rise at 3 percent per year, while expenses grow at 5 percent. He urged caution as the council tosses around figures for a 2005 budget hovering at more than $35 million, including operations and capital spending.

“We may have significant problems next year,” he said.

Councilman Nezam Tooloee had more dire predictions for the city’s future finances.

“I’m concerned the lines will have crossed sooner than scheduled,” he said, estimating expense increases could reach 9 percent.

Rising employee health insurance costs and pensions are increasing costs while a 1 percent cap on property taxes is limiting revenues, said Ralph Eells, budget manager. All Washington city governments are suffering from the same imbalance, he added.

“It’s a direct result of tax revolt initiatives,” he said.

And more initiatives are to come, warned Councilman Bill Knobloch.

“Tim Eyman is not done yet,” he said. “There may be a property tax initiative we may have to deal with next year.”

The city faces tough challenges in this year’s budget process, as the council has already added about $1 million to the mayor’s preliminary budget, boosting funding for roads and non-motorized transportation improvements.

The council was also reminded of the needs of many nonprofit groups that depend on city funds for significant portions of their budgets.

The council listened for over an hour to group representatives urging the city not to cut funding for affordable housing, the arts, youth services, parks and other efforts.

Some requests fit the city’s budget priorities and may spur the council to take a harder look at where money is going.

“If affordable housing is something we want to emphasize next year we’re going to need more dollars,” said Mayor Darlene Kordonowy.

Island resident Doug Hatfield suggested a variety of ways the city could make cuts, including reductions in funds for erosion studies, sewage pumps and wells.

“You’re going to pay $100,000 to haul dirt and rocks off the island,” he said. “Somehow the city’s really good at recycling paper and plastic. It seems like it should be able to recycle dirt and rocks.”

He urged the city to more closely examine its proposed expenses.

“If you’re looking for money I hope you’re asking the hard questions,” he said.

The audience packing the council chambers applauded Hatfield’s suggestions.

The city will hold another public workshop on the 2005 proposed budget Monday at City Hall starting at 9:30 a.m.

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