Budget judgment day comes and goes

It was presumed by some to be a foregone conclusion.

The City Council on Wednesday would make the final decision to delay a planned shift to a two-year budget cycle, as recommended last month by City Administrator Mark Dombroski.

Then came the actual event.

Questions arose, discussion intensified, time waned and, when the clock signaled the end of the meeting, councilors walked out without answering the question: is the switch on or not?

Dombroski’s answer came later in the week: Maybe next biennium.

“It will not be going back before council,” he said of the issue. “At this point we’re going to proceed with the biennial budget development. We will continue to ask both the attorney general and the state auditor for their opinion and reevaluate our decision based upon information we get from them.”

Looking to increase efficiency, the council voted unanimously last year to switch to a biennial budget beginning next year. The idea is that crafting a budget every two years leaves leaders more time to address non-budget related items in off years.

But Dombroski – who took over his post in April – has said the city isn’t ready yet to make the change. Specifically, he cited the troubled economy and inadequate forecasting tools at the city as reasons to wait.

A decision on the issue was needed by the end of June, Dombroski said, so the city could finalize its budget calendar.

Since approval didn’t come Wednesday, the plan now is to move ahead, ready or not, with the biennial budget.

That’s just as well for some councilors – and former councilman Bob Scales – who had questions about the legality of delaying the move.

In email exchanges and several public comment periods, Scales has adamantly said the city can’t revert to a single year budget until after it goes through the upcoming biennial budget cycle.

He and some council members believe the city should move ahead with its original plan.

City administration disagreed, saying the city can change its mind since it hasn’t yet entered the biennium.

City Attorney Paul McMurray on Wednesday acknowledged the issue isn’t “black and white,” but said the city’s position was confirmed by an independent legal opinion and the nonprofit Municipal Research and Services Center of Washington, which researches government issues and is often used as a resource by cities.

Councilwoman Debbie Vancil was the first to get up and walk out at the scheduled end of the meeting, when some councilors appeared ready to continue. She said she would have voted against the delay, had it come to that.

“I have some huge concerns,” she said. “I’m not confident enough in the city’s position to support the administration’s proposal right now. There are too many unanswered questions.”

Councilman Kjell Stoknes said he thinks what happened at the end of the meeting was more about politics than the biennial budget.

“My biggest disappointment is that I thought we as a council operated as inefficiently as I’ve ever seen us operate,” said Stoknes. “I saw some stalling techniques for the purpose of not getting to a particular item on the agenda.’”

That item, Stoknes said, is the bundling of grants for the Winslow Way project, which never got discussed.

The city has about $2.5 million in federal grant money that must be used by the end of 2010. The money right now is split between three projects at Winslow Way, Wyatt Way and Wing Point Way. The Wyatt project has been canceled, and the city only has enough money to do one of the remaining two.

Though the council didn’t discuss their individual preferences Wednesday, there is a familiar divide on the council when it comes to Winslow Way; Stoknes, Chris Snow, Barry Peters and Hilary Franz have in the past voted to move ahead with the administration’s schedule, while Vancil, Bill Knobloch and Kim Brackett have urged waiting until its financing plan is better defined.

Though the biennial budget discussion won’t be on next Wednesday’s agenda, the grant discussion will be.

The meeting starts at 6 p.m.

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