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Bainbridge Council votes in 2010 budget reductions

It took more than a month, and six meetings, but the City Council Wednesday unanimously agreed on more than $1 million worth of budget cuts to fund reserve accounts and give the city some financial breathing room.

The council concluded this round of budget discussions only a few months out from the beginning of the 2011-12 biennial budget process, when councilors say the discussion of the long-term function of the city will occur.

“We accomplished our original goal, and the bigger discussion about the budget is going to happen,” Mayor Bob Scales said.

Councilors have long talked about this exercise as the first step in a process that will lead to a sustainable budget that doesn’t need to be torn apart, reduced or altered several times each year.

“Since I joined the council (in January 2008) it’s been budget pretty much 24-7, and for the first time, I think we’re having a thoroughly honest and thoughtful discussion with the community about our budget,” Councilor Kim Brackett said.

The current run of budget cuts served the function of ensuring that a large expense, such as an insurance payment, wouldn’t force the city to borrow money from other funds to pay off general fund obligations.

In the long-term, the council will consider how to balance the various goals and commitments of the city.

“This is the third year in a row that the city hasn’t funded any road maintenance,” Scales said. “You can’t do that without suffering any consequences.”

Numerous councilors echoed Scales’ desire to make road maintenance a high priority. Scales and Councilor Barry Peters said the council may examine use of a voter bond to help fund a number of road and non-motorized transportation projects in the next year or two.

Councilor Kirsten Hytopoulos, one of three new members who came in after the 2010 budget was vetted in December of last year, said the council needs to start from scratch when looking at the next biennial budget. Over the past two years, numerous cuts to the budget left the city without much to trim, she said, so starting over and setting priorities is necessary.

“The most important thing is we have to start from a blank slate,” she said.

The council crafted the budget cuts over a series of four meetings in the last month.

The fifth in the series of meetings earlier this week gave the public its last chance to comment on the proposals. At that meeting, representatives of various community organizations looking at reduced funding from the city spoke with the council about the impact of the changes.

Barbara Clarke, chair of the Housing Trust Fund, which will not receive the $150,000 it gets annually from the city, said the lack of funds will put them in a difficult position this year.

“I think the cuts are real harsh,” she said. “Very painful. We’ve never had anyone from the City Council come to our meetings, and we’ve never gotten responses to our letters to the council. What’s going to happen to affordable housing on the island?”

The second biggest reduction in service contracts comes to the 2 percent for the arts program. The program, which dedicates 2 percent of the money spent on capital projects to maintenance and creation of public art, was suspended temporarily until the council can determine the financial impact. Based on the projects in motion this year, the program was due to receive nearly $140,000 this year.

Though several community organizations will be greatly impacted by the cuts, the majority of savings came from not filling vacant positions. Between the unfilled jobs, reshuffling of some titles and a voluntarily reduced work week for a few employees, the city will save more than $500,000 this year.

The package does not include laying off any current staff.

The police and information technology departments will be most impacted by the proposals.

In lieu of a deputy chief, a vacant position the council voted to eliminate, the police will employ a captain, who serves as the secondary authority to the chief. The captain’s position could be filled by one of the five existing lieutenants. That lieutenant position would then be cut.

The council recommended a merge between IT and finance, which carried with it a change in position for the IT director, who would become the IT manager and take a paycut.

These budget cuts, while not endorsed by the council as the permanent solution to the city’s fiscal crisis, will fill a goal of stocking several reserve funds. Early in these budget sessions the council mandated that the city needed to have $3 million in reserves: $1.5 million for capital reserves, which could be available at any time, $500,000 for a contingency fund and $1 million in emergency reserves, which will be filled through one time revenue like grants and property sales.

The $1 million from this year’s cuts will stock two-thirds of the capital reserve fund. Next year, the council will find an additional $1 million to fill the remainder of the capital reserve account and the contingency fund.

After passing the budget cuts and securing the plans for reserves, councilors thanked each other and applauded a job well done, so far.

“We finished phase one, but we got phase two ahead of us, and it’s going to be a lot of work,” said Councilor Bill Knobloch.

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