No spending without justification

“The farther back you can look the farther forward you are likely to see.”

  • Tuesday, June 10, 2008 12:06am
  • Opinion

“The farther back you can look the farther forward you are likely to see.”

– Winston Churchill

After the Winslow Tomorrow Congress delivered its 32 recommendations, the city used that future urban-growth design as a downtown redevelopment plan. Millions, including borrowed money, was spent on consultants, feasibility studies and design. The resulting model is known as the Winslow Streetscape.

Now, with even less city revenue due to our tanking economy, this project has been downgraded from a major redevelopment project to a utilities project. Yet, we still have before us a $1.3 million design contract for Heery International without knowing our actual expected 2008 revenue shortfall. How can the city move ahead with any contract when it doesn’t even know where the 2007 year-end balances ended?

An approval of the Heery contract without knowing the funding strategy or the timeline and budget for the “conditions” continues the pattern of spending without planning. There is no assurance that we have the ability to pay for the project; the city has no money for capital projects. City revenues are down an astounding 10 percent and are projected to drop like a stone; our councilmanic bonding capacity is also down. Approval of a design contract that may sit on a shelf for years is not a responsible decision.

Before we spend millions more to design the Streetscape, we must first see a financial-capacity analysis model that shows how we are going to pay for this project. The community deserves projects on the ground for its tax money, not designs on a shelf. That money could be spent to complete other pressing community needs that can actually be completed this year and next year.

Utility repair and road maintenance are basic services that must be provided; in the current financial crisis, we aren’t even able to do that. As far back as 2006, the council budgeted $800,000 for annual road maintenance and repair, and another $500,000 for non-motorized bike and pedestrian lanes. This year those budgets are slated to be dramatically cut, along with most other community-based services and needs. The Streetscape project is not just a contract for a capital project, it is The Mother of All Projects that will be a major drain on city finances; everything will be subordinate to it for many years to come.

The city council has a responsibility to ensure sound, predictable public process and policies that reflect overall community direction, not the direction of a minority. As the country appears to be shifting into a recession, we should err on the side of caution. Moving forward without a plan is a continuation of the pattern of how the city got into this mess. It’s not good enough to use utility ratepayers and councilmanic debt as the fall-back position for payment of the Streetscape. We haven’t even done a rate study to know if we can.

Instead of continuing to head off blindly, let’s change the way we do business at City Hall, beginning with this project. The city should:

• Plan a project based on necessity and scientific community surveys that ensure major expenditures are community priorities;

• Do a rate study before considering the feasibility of utility rate increases;

• Do a strong financial capacity analysis to understand what we can afford and how this project will affect other island priorities and demands;

• Explore all funding options and build a strong funding strategy before we spend more on a 100 percent design.

• Include options such as applying for a Public Works Trust Fund Loan with reduced interest instead of increasing utility rates;

• Consider an LID for Winslow Way commercial property owners;

• Work harder to cut city operations before we reduce more community needs or impose rate increases; and

• Keep our promises and honor our funding agreements with community organizations and partnering government entities, such as the parks and school districts.

All of this will build trust with the community and confidence in our city government. We can do better; it is necessary and required.

Deborah Vancil is a member of the Bainbridge Island City Council

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