Despite a global economic crisis and declining city revenue, Mayor Darlene Kordonowy has proposed yet another unsustainable budget. Over the next two years she plans to add more than $30 million to city coffers by raising taxes, rates and fees, and by going even further into debt.
The mayor needs this extra cash so she can launch the most aggressive capital spending program in the city’s history – $50 million for a handful of mega projects. This spending program will leave the city with crippling debt, homeowners with higher property taxes and utility customers with massive rate increases, including a 42 percent increase in storm-water fees and a 44 percent increase in sewer rates.
The mayor wants to maintain city bureaucracy at a time when other cities are slashing operating expenses and laying off employees. If the City Council approves the mayor’s reckless agenda, they will likely condemn the city to years of financial turmoil.
Even if the council were to approve the mayor’s massive capital spending program, only a small fraction of the projects would ever be completed. According to the 2007 benchmarking study, the city has never successfully finished even a modest annual capital program on time and on budget.
The city’s public works department completes at most 30 percent of the projects that are funded each year. Yet the mayor wants to quadruple the size of the capital program, wasting even more taxpayer dollars on the city’s inefficient and unproductive bureaucracy.
The mayor promises dramatic cuts in operating expenses to help offset declining revenue, yet her proposed budget maintains the existing structure, function and operation of city government and fails to take real steps to improve efficiency, productivity or performance.
The benchmarking study found that Bainbridge Island is overstaffed, under performing and less efficient than comparable cities. The report presented a series of recommendations for improving productivity and reducing costs including staffing cuts.
In the past, the mayor has stubbornly refused to cut any staff positions. Now she claims that the 2009-2010 budget will cut 13.5 FTEs (full-time employees) over the next two years. However, most of these staff cuts are illusory, including temporary positions already scheduled to expire, positions that will be remain on the books but be temporarily unfunded and unidentified positions to be cut through unspecified efficiency improvements. The actual number of new cuts that will produce real savings over the long term is only 3.5 FTEs
The benchmarking study found that the only city department that was understaffed was the police department and recommended that more patrol officers be added to the force. Last year the City Council did just that. Now the mayor is proposing to cut two patrol officers, saving $120,000 a year. This would result in a 15 percent reduction in the number of officers on the street and would increase response times to 911 calls.
Instead of cutting patrol officers, the mayor should cut the vacant deputy chief position. This administrative position was added just two years ago at the request of the chief of police. The cost of the deputy chief is the same as two patrol officers so both of those patrol positions could be saved.
Non-motorized transportation has consistently ranked at the top of the island’s “community values” surveys. In 2005, the City Council adopted budget guidelines to increase city support for non-motorized projects. These guidelines, which appear in the mayor’s proposed budget, require the city to spend at least $800,000 of general-fund revenue each year on these projects.
One would therefore expect the mayor’s budget to contain general-fund support for non-motorized projects. yet the mayor does not allocate a single dollar of city money for such improvements. Instead, the mayor wants to ask voters to approve a $6 million non-motorized transportation bond. Voters would be forced to raise their own property taxes in order to realize one of their highest priorities while city money is spent on projects with much less community support.
Wouldn’t it be more appropriate to spend existing city revenue on projects people want and send the lower-priority projects out for a vote instead?
This is the second year in a row that the mayor and her staff have presented the council with an inflated and unrealistic budget. It is unfortunate that the mayor’s vision of a sustainable future is not based in financial reality. Once again the council will be forced to cut millions of dollars from the mayor’s budget in order to bring it back down to earth.
The mayor won’t come down willingly and her staff will throw up many obstacles. I hope the council has the fortitude to do what is needed. The future of our community is at stake.
Bob Scales is an attorney and former member of the City Council (2003-2007).