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Council can ‘reinvent city’ with new budget

A retreat will be held to figure out the right goals for the city under the new form of government.

Since the new City Council took office in January, the talk has been about reinventing the city, which may now begin in earnest with the council launching the 2011-12 budget process.

At its Wednesday business meeting, the council was set to schedule a public hearing to discuss the city’s strategic goals and plans, along with financial policies, as a way to begin shaping the budget.

But the council saw its opportunity to begin the reinvention process and instead decided to schedule a workshop the first week of June to re-prioritize the city’s goals.

At the meeting, a number of councilors hoped to narrow down the services the city, hampered by financial difficulties the last two years, can provide.

“Our strategic goals are a holdover from a city that tried to do everything,” said Councilor Barry Peters. “I think that many of us have said time and again that we need to have a shorter list; we have to get back to basics.”

The council agreed to look for a facilitator to run the meeting.

Following the planning session, the council will come back to the public to get its input.

The strategic goals will help the council determine exactly what the city, can and cannot provide. That question plagued the council throughout a series of budget cuts early this year and will continue to be a factor during discussions of the next budget.

The majority of the council’s biggest issues to decide stem from that question. Directly related to services, is the question of how large of a staff the city can support?

“We cannot fix our roads, and that indicates the budget is way out of balance,” said Councilor Bill Knobloch. “In order to bring it back into balance and deliver services, we have to cut costs, and if that includes a reduction of staff and realignment of administrative departments, then that’s the way it’s got to be; we don’t have a choice.”

The potential transferring of the water and sewer utilities will play a big part in staffing decisions as well. Finance Director Elray Konkel said those utilities currently pay for 20 employees. Should the transfer occur, great savings could be passed off to the customers, but it could come at the expense of city staff.

“That’s going to be a dramatic effect,” Konkel said about losing the utilities. “If we don’t have those at a certain point in time we don’t have support for those FTEs (full-time equivalent employees).”

Konkel estimated that revenue for the next year should be about level, if not slightly greater than last year, but it’s the expenses the council will have to spend most of its time on.

The council showed its commitment to changing the goals and plans of the city, but officials recognize that they can’t remake Bainbridge in a day. It has to start with this year, and then future years can be dealt with.

“We need to make our goals more specific and pertaining to this budget, more than just having several aspirational goals,” said Mayor Bob Scales.

The council has said a number of times that it wants to do the budget right the first time, so it doesn’t have to go back and cut items out like it did this year.

For most councilors, that means starting over. It means being deliberate enough to see how much money is available and adjusting accordingly.

“I think we need to get our house in order before we ask the public for more input,” said Councilor Kim Brackett.

But the council still has a schedule to meet. Its timeline must line up with city staff, so that staff members can know what the council wants and build the budget accordingly.

But councilors don’t want to rush the process because it has a lot of issues to wade through, and it needs the public’s help.

“Whether or not to keep water and sewer is the first challenge, and truly right sizing the organization and the services provided,” Konkel said.

“What to do with legal services, what to do with the court, what to do with the rest of the departments? “ he said. “I think they can all be somewhat encompassed by right sizing the organization. We need to know the direction the community wishes us to go.”

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