Number shuffling and grant debates bog down budget talks

Shuffling numbers around isn’t helpful when you have to make $3.9 million in cuts to balance your budget.

Yet, in another six-plus-hour budget meeting, the Bainbridge City Council managed to accomplish only two major budgetary actions: moving all capital project expenditures earmarked for 2009 to 2010 and then returning all major projects to be funded in 2010 back to 2009, saving a total of $250,000 and continuing to inflate an unrealistic 2010 capital project plan.

“I don’t think we used our time effectively and we didn’t have a strategy,” said council member Kjell Stoknes. “We spend too much time doing too little. It makes the decision process very painful but I suppose that is part of democracy.”

The council has only a handful of budget meetings and three council meetings left to approve the 2009-2010 budget, but council members are setting themselves up for a much more daunting task – trimming a $40 million capital project plan for 2010.

Although shifting some projects from 2009 to 2010 helped offset roughly $1.4 million in decreased revenue assumptions in ‘09, there is also $2.5 million in decreased revenue assumptions to address in 2010. Eventually cuts will have to be made from capital projects or operating expenses to balance the budget.

The only significant cost savings addressed at Wednesday’ meeting came with the conditional approval to fund a road-repair project for Wing Point Way. To reduce the cost of the project, council advised that planning be done in-house to avoid contractor expenses.

The subject of a contentious $2.5 million Economic Development District (EDD) grant available through the Puget Sound Regional Council (PSRC) was also the focus of council attention for roughly an hour of the meeting.

Council members voted in their usual 4-3 vote to earmark any grants received by the city to offset the amount of utility bonds the city will eventually use to pay for the Winslow Way reconstruction project. Those utility bonds are paid off by utility ratepayers. If the full grant was received up to $3 million could offset an estimated $5.5 million of utility ratepayer obligations for the project.

“We’re all looking out for the concerns of ratepayers,” council member Barry Peters said. “I would say we’re very fortunate to find a grant source that does exactly what all of us hoped – to minimize the financial impact on our water and sewer users.”

Council Chair Bill Knobloch, who has repeatedly expressed his disapproval of leveraging the project’s costs against downtown utility ratepayers, voted against using grant money to offset utility bonds along with council members Debbie Vancil and Kim Brackett.

Knobloch cited the way the EDD grant was worded and already high utility rates, as his points of contestation to the measure.

“Free money is always welcome, (but) the question is how we got it,” he said. “The amount of money that is being used to offset the utility revenue bonds is not significant enough to provide the relief necessary for ratepayers.

“We’re now the highest utility ratepayers in the county and highest regionally. We’re still going into a project without any utility audit or accountability.”

Mayor Darlene Kordonowy lauded the council’s actions and the motion by council members to continue the Winslow project’s funding in 2009.

“It is encouraging to see, even in these times, that Winslow Way continues to be the number one project for the majority of council members,” she said.

Eleven other municipalities have applied for the EDD grant this year. On average, one or two Puget Sound projects receive EDD grant money annually. The city is competing with Bremerton, Bellevue and King County economic development projects for funding. Grants will be approved before 2009.

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