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City still hopeful it won't have to lay off employees

The City Council and staff hunkered down for more than five hours Monday night as they presented and debated numerous options for reductions to this year’s budget, none of which specifically suggested laying off any staff employees.

The proposals instead focused on reducing consulting services and saving money on salaries and benefits by leaving vacant positions open for the remainder of the year.

No decisions were made at the meeting, and Monday’s discussion will continue into another budget workshop on March 3, when the council will likely piece together a package of reductions to begin the process of drafting an ordinance or resolution.

Following next Wednesday’s meeting, the public will have a chance to comment the night of March 9, with the package then going in front of the council at the following evening’s business meeting.

The council sought to find a way to cut $1 million from this year’s budget to create an operating reserve and contingency fund.

Next year another $1 million will need to be cut, and the city will generate an additional $1 million for an emergency account from one-time revenue, such as grants or sales of property.

The staff proposal focused primarily on leaving five vacant managerial positions unfilled for the majority of the year.

The city will save more than $400,000 in general-fund money and $270,000 in utility dollars by leaving open the positions of city engineer, deputy police chief, human resources administrator, public works director and water resources program manager.

The plan also includes not filling the position of shoreline planner this quarter.

Department heads told the council the city can function well for the remainder of the year with these positions remaining open.

“The time between 2009 and today is a success story in our department,” said Lance Newkirk, interim director of public works, the largest department in the city. “But that success is fragile.”

Newkirk and other directors agreed that the city was scraping by, but any further reductions in staff would hinder the ability to do business in a timely manner. In an attempt to avoid layoffs, administration is asking for several volunteers to take on 32-hour work weeks. Interim City Manager Lee Walton is unsure how this would affect service levels, but it was something that needed to be explored.

“I don’t know any other way to do it than to let them take that day and see if they can still get everything done,” he said.

The current situation at City Hall is only working, the department heads said, because staff picked up slack following layoffs last year.

Multiple department leaders used Deputy Planning Director Chris Wierzbicki as an example. Wierzbicki was recruited to serve the deputy role, but following the layoffs and departures by several high-level employees, he was thrust into the role of city engineer.

“He’s getting paid one salary to do two jobs,” said Planning Director Kathy Cook.

Union representatives for city employees did not respond to a request for comment.

Staff also proposed reductions in numerous consulting contracts and community service agreements.

Some councilors were surprised by the nature of the proposals, hoping for solutions based on permanent reductions, not short-term moves to make it to the end of the year.

“Most of the items on this list are one-time cuts,” said Mayor Bob Scales. “If the council were to just hold positions vacant, that’s not a long-term solution.”

Scales did say he supported the cuts proposed by administration.

Councilor Kim Brackett agreed with Scales, saying that these cuts don’t fit with the new attitude this council has shown in the past two months.

“I thought we were going to reinvent the city as opposed to continuing with business as usual,” she said.

Walton countered that this round of cuts represents a starting point.

To expect to reorganize government function and finance in two months is unreal, he said. But this process will set an example of what costs the city will take on in years to come, while more permanent reductions – serving to reorganize the city – will continue to be discussed throughout the year and into the next biennial budget talks.

“Eliminating these kinds of contracts helps give us a sustainable basis for the future,” Walton said.

The police department submitted one of the primary long-term staff changes. In his plan, Police Chief Jon Fehlman advocated permanently cutting the deputy chief job and replacing it with a captain’s position. One of the department’s five current lieutenants would fill that role. That way, Fehlman said, the department saves money on salary while also having a secession plan in place.

“Someday, when I walk away from here somebody should be able to step into my shoes without a ripple,” he said.

Along with discussions of re-staffing positions and budget reductions, councilors and staff debated merging departments and pooling resources. In Scales’ proposal, he suggested moving the Bainbridge Island Arts and Humanities Council into City Hall to reduce overhead. Several councilors inquired as to whether municipal court services could be moved to City Hall, but given the amount of space needed for clerk’s offices and courtrooms, that wasn’t a likely possibility, Walton said.

Scales and Hilary Franz both suggested merging the information technology and finance departments. While neither suggested laying off any of the IT personnel, Scales and Franz agreed that changing the IT director to an IT manager and dropping his salary would save the city some cash.

Neither the council nor the staff got into much discussion about shedding money from the $1.2 million worth of community service contracts. The staff proposal indicated a $200,000 reduction in community service contracts to be decided by council discretion.

Scales and Barry Peters both spoke to sacrificing some arts funding in this process. Peters suggested reducing 2 percent for the arts back to 1 percent, and creating caps as a function of revenue to fund Health and Human Services and BIAHC. Scales advocated temporarily suspending 2 percent for the arts until a comprehensive review is completed.

Monday’s meeting was the third in a series of budget workshops, which were birthed by council after Finance Director Elray Konkel asked for a $600,000 interfund loan to the general fund to pay an insurance bill. The council called these meetings to create nearly $3 million in reserves to keep that from happening again.

In 2010 and 2011, the council will pass enough cuts in order to put a total of $2 million in a day-to-day operational fund, and a contingency fund. Another $1 million, which will come from one-time revenues such as sales of property and unencumbered grants, will be stuck into an emergency account, only accessible by council vote.

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