In front of a standing room only crowd in the council chambers Tuesday night, the Liberty Lake City Council unanimously passed a 6 percent utility tax to take effect on Dec. 26.
The tax will be charged on utilities that include gas, electric, solid waste removal (trash), telephone and cable television services in the city. In an unusual twist, the approval of the tax increase was greeted by applause by most of those in attendance at the meeting.
City Manager Doug Smith indicated the average household in the city will see an increase for all services totaling approximately $200 a year. The city expects to see around $825,000 of new revenue generated with the tax to help offset a projected $700,000 deficit in the 2011 budget.
Former Mayor Steve Peterson spoke against the utility tax, commenting that the tax would be nothing more than a “slush fund” for the City Council to spend more money. Councilman Ryan Romney disagreed with Peterson’s comment, saying the utility tax was “no different than any other tax we give whether it’s a property or sales tax.” Romney went on to say, “We have a budget crisis. There’s no way but to dramatically decrease expenditures or increase revenue to solve it.”
Councilwoman Judi Owens, who has served on the council since November 2000, cited while she was “fundamentally opposed to it,” she acknowledged the tax was “a necessary revenue source.” As a city resident, she added her vote on the tax was “voting a tax on myself,” and “This is the responsible thing to do.”
The tax increase will be reviewed by the City Council six months into 2011, at which time the council can decide to keep the tax or lower it from the 6 percent rate. Mayor Pro Tem David Crump stated the city cannot increase the tax without voter approval.
The large crowd was also drawn to the meeting by the news the city had cut back services to the city golf course and library.
Mayor Wendy Van Orman notified two full-time library employees their hours would be cut to part time status, and two golf course employees they would no longer work year round, but on a seasonal basis. The city has proposed the course close for the season on Nov. 12 or “when the weather turns” according to Van Orman.
The library will be open four days a week beginning Dec. 31, with employees being limited to working a maximum of 24 hours a week.
“Knowing that the utility tax goes into effect Dec. 26, for all intents and purposes, it takes a month for us to receive any revenue,” said Van Orman. “What we receive in January, we won’t see until February. When we look at it nine months from now, we’ll be able to see exactly where we’re at. How that will affect both the library and the golf course, I’m hoping it will affect them. I can’t make promises. Not until we get through this budget.”
The cutbacks to the golf course and library drew a number of citizen comments, many citing the importance of keeping the services of the two for the children of the community with reading programs and golf lessons.
There were also concerns about the maintenance of the golf course during the winter time as the two people who were cut back did that function. The council did not indicate what their plans were for the maintenance of the course during the off season.
In other news from the meeting, Van Orman said the grand opening for the recently completed Rocky Hill Park will be Saturday at 9 a.m. at the park. The Valleyway sidewalk project also has received approval for funding, with engineer and surveying work to be done from January to June, and construction on the project to be held from June to September.
The mayor will also present her budget to the council for 2011 at the next meeting on Nov. 2.