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Washington Voices

City Council weighs more budget-cutting options

Members worry that 3 percent won’t be enough

The Spokane Valley City Council continued its discussion about the budget Tuesday, getting an update on increases and decreases that have been factored in.

The city has cut $1 million by reducing the budget by 3 percent and cut an additional $350,000 by eliminating vacant positions. The 2011 budget also includes an additional $46,000 for broadcasting the council meetings and an additional $100,000 to fund an anticipated increase in retirement costs.

Councilwoman Brenda Grassel questioned the need for the retirement increase. “Is that negotiable or is that in the contracts?” she said.

“No, that’s mandated by state law,” said finance director Ken Thompson.

Councilman Bob McCaslin asked why the broadcasting cost was set at $46,000. “We haven’t settled on a plan or a method for broadcast,” said acting City Manager Mike Jackson. The council will determine in November which council broadcast funding option they want to fund, he said.

During the public comment period Planning Commissioner Arne Woodard said he was concerned that the city’s budget is still planned to grow by 4 percent in 2011. “I would encourage the council to cut into the budget more,” he said. “I do believe there’s a delayed income slowing coming.”

Grassel said she also was concerned that a 3 percent cut wasn’t enough. “I agree with the comments made,” she said. “Perhaps we freeze all travel expenses. Everything should be on the table.”

Jackson said the city has $24 million in reserves and a $34 million general fund budget. “We’re in a very solid, secure financial position,” he said. “We’re not in a precarious position at all.”

Councilman Dean Grafos also said he’d be in favor of cutting more than 3 percent. “I think our budget is going in the right direction,” he said. Grafos also suggested adding a $1 million line item to fund street preservation projects, but did not specify where the money would come from. Grassel agreed with his suggestion and said the money could come from the general fund.

Jackson cautioned that the city should be cautious of extra spending until the economy recovers. “This is a good time to hold on to our reserves,” he said.

In other business, the council unanimously advanced a proposed text amendment to a second reading that would add vehicle sales as an allowed use in the Mixed Use Avenue zone. McCaslin noted that vehicle sales also aren’t allowed in most other zones in the Sprague/Appleway Revitalization Plan. “Who in the world came up with that?” he said. “What’s the purpose of that?”

“The intent was to focus vehicle sales in the Auto Row area and make it a destination,” said assistant planner Christina Janssen.

Todd Whipple of Whipple Consulting Engineers had written an identical proposed text amendment to benefit Elephant Boys, a boat sales business that moved to an adjacent property and is now out of compliance. “We were trying to fix a very specific problem,” he said.

The proposed amendment would allow vehicle sales as a conditional use, meaning the business owner would have to apply for a conditional use permit. The permit requires a public hearing before the hearing examiner, who has the authority to impose mitigating conditions. Whipple said that provision was added to make the proposed changed more “palatable.” “Conditional use seems to be fair,” he said.

Councilman Bill Gothmann said the Elephant Boys problem arose when a neighboring business owner complained about the boat displays. “A conditional use permit is a good way of providing that arbitration that is needed,” he said.

Mayor Tom Towey asked his fellow council members whether the city should send Spokane County a letter expressing support for a regional Transportation Benefit District. The district would collect a car tab fee that would be used by jurisdictions in Spokane County for road projects. The city has the option of joining a regional effort or creating a TBD themselves.

Gothmann said he favors a regional approach partly because the city would receive more money that way. “There are regional things that need to be attended to and this would do that,” he said.

McCaslin said he disagreed. “As we join these regional concepts, I think we lose our identity and lose our authority,” he said. It doesn’t matter that the city would get more money under a regional TBD, he said. “I want my independence.”

“I think we should just do it on a local basis,” said Grafos.

Towey said that no agreement has been made yet and the city doesn’t yet know what a regional agreement would look like. He recommended sending a letter expressing interest in a regional TBD to get the process started “so we know exactly what we’re deciding.”

“I believe we owe the county an answer,” said Councilman Gary Schimmels. “Somebody has to start the process.”

A majority of the council agreed to have Jackson craft a motion for consideration at the next meeting, so the council can officially vote on whether or not to send the letter.