Funding may stall litany of projects

The administration says it can’t complete the work without additional staffing.

A street opening tied to the city’s downtown planning initiative may be put off for a year – not for want of political support, but rather, an engineer to design it.

Design work for the connection of Ericksen Avenue and Hildebrand Lane is on a laundry list of public works and other projects the administration says it cannot complete in 2006, unless the City Council approves additional short-term staffing.

“During budgeting, I did say I had significant concerns about our ability to deliver what was being funded,” city Administrator Mary Jo Briggs said, after presenting the council with projects likely to go by the wayside. “It’s not an easy conversation to have, since some of these (projects) are prized by the community as well.”

Council members are unhappy, saying the administration has simply abandoned projects added by the council during budgeting, reverting to the mayor’s draft budget to determine the coming year’s workload.

Also at issue are the actual cost of projects the council thought it had funded for 2006, and why city staffing apparently was not included in the administration’s original estimates.

“What’s really bizarre to me is that when they put a price tag on a project, I assume that’s what it’s going to cost us,” said Bob Scales, council chair. “Basically what they’ve come back and said is, ‘No no, that’s not really the true cost of these projects.’”

Projects proposed for deferral were itemized on an eight-page spreadsheet released by the administration late last week.

Public works plans that could be delayed include engineering for road projects at Ericksen/Hildebrand, on Wyatt Way, at the Head of the Bay, on North Madison and Wing Point Way among others, as well as improvements at four public road ends.

Also facing delays are several formal studies specifically sought by the council for 2007 budgeting. These include a study of the fee structure for the storm water utility and planning and building activities, as well as a “benchmark” review to determine appropriate levels of service provided by the city.

Briggs said the city can only complete the public works list by hiring several engineers on short-term contracts that would end once the projects are done.

“We want to be true to the council’s goal of limiting staff over the long haul,” she said.

In the police department, various public outreach programs for neighborhood watch, identity theft and vulnerable adult protection also would be abandoned for want of staffing.

The list of deferred projects was to be discussed at the committee level yesterday afternoon. The full council will take up the issue at a Jan. 25 meeting.

Scales said the council could provide additional funding for some of the projects by putting others on the back burner, or by taking money from a $750,000 pot of general-fund money earmarked for more open space purchases.

Among the projects that could be delayed is the long-controversial Ericksen-Hildebrand connection, which has been debated off and on for more than 15 years.

The connection has been generally favored by Hildebrand business owners and opposed by Ericksen residents concerned over a possible upswing in traffic in their neighborhood.

Public works officials have sought the connection, saying it would provide a needed conduit for north-south traffic flow between downtown and High School Road.

The connection was formally blocked by council action in a transportation study adopted four years ago.

But it has since emerged as a key component of downtown traffic planning.

The connection was among the recommendations to emerge from the Winslow Tomorrow initiative, while the Chamber of Commerce last year presented the council with a petition signed by more than 1,000 islanders supporting the move.

In a de facto political shift, the council included $90,000 to engineer the connection in the 2006 budget, anticipating construction in 2007.

The money came and went from the draft budget during negotiations, but finally was included after lobbying by Chamber of Commerce members.

Kevin Dwyer, Chamber of Commerce executive director, said his organization remains convinced of the project’s importance for merchants both downtown and on High School Road.

He was surprised to hear that the street opening might be stalled, after it was included in the city budget.

“If that’s the case, we’re certainly disappointed that they’re not moving forward, given all that’s been said about it,” Dwyer said, “not only from us but from numerous consultants who’ve been hired by the city.”

Scales said council support for the Ericksen-Hildebrand project is “overwhelming,” and that it would likely be funded for 2006 design even if other projects go by the wayside.

“It’s way overdue, and I’m relatively certain that it will make the cut,” he said.

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