By Jeremy Schwartz
Peninsula Daily News
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During a four-hour financial planning session at the Vern Burton Memorial Community Center on Saturday, council members and staff talked about development of the plan, which will serve as a guide for forming city budgets for the next few years.
Saturday’s meeting focused on several individual pieces of the long-range plan that
City Manager Dan McKeen asked council members to provide direction so the staff could move forward.
After the meeting, McKeen said he was “very pleased” with input City Council members had offered.
“That’s exactly what staff were looking for,” McKeen said.
The long-range plan will come before City Council members at least three more times before the council votes to adopt the plan, with action expected at the July 2 meeting.
“There’s additional opportunity [for council input] before any plan is given to the council for consideration,” McKeen said.
“I think [council member input is] something that’s going to benefit us as we put together our budget.”
Public comment will be accepted on the long-range plan, which is designed to addresses the city’s total $120 million budget, at both the June 18 and July 2 City Council meetings, McKeen added.
During Saturday’s retreat, city staff presented several recommendations for inclusion in the plan, including taking the 1 percent property tax increase as allowed by state law, and a provision assuming no utility tax increase through 2018.
“I wholeheartedly agree with this staff recommendation,” Councilman Max Mania said, referring to the not increasing the utility tax.
The utility tax rate is separate from utility rates themselves, McKeen explained.
City Council members reached consensus on the staff recommendations, some with relatively little discussion and some with suggested changes staff will make and bring back to council members at future meetings.
Other staff recommendations included increasing the amount the city keeps in its reserves, which McKeen said should ideally be much higher than the current 10 percent of the general fund balance the city maintains.
“We feel a 10 percent [reserve] is completely inadequate,” McKeen said.
Staff members recommended that the city save in its reserves 25 percent of the general fund at any one time, or roughly three months worth of operating costs, McKeen explained.
The city could only spend the reserve on one-time capital or program expenses and not be used to fund on-going projects or programs.
Mayor Cherie Kidd asked where the money for the reserve would come from.
McKeen explained any savings at the end of a fiscal year would be transferred into reserves until the given percentage of the general fund amount is reached.
“Ideally, it’s always a good idea to have a little revenue left over at the end of a year, even if it’s half of 1 percent,” McKeen said.
“That would be rolled over into reserves.”
City Finance Director Byron Olson said he would not advise maintaining a reserve balance approaching 30 or 35 percent of the general fund for fear that city residents would think the city is not doing much with their tax dollars.
“The idea of just building a giant cash pot, the concern there is that the public starts to go, ‘I’m not seeing much for my taxes,’” Olson said.
Another city staff recommendation involved developing strategies to increase the city’s tax base, which Olson and other city staff at the meeting considered one of the most realistic ways of combating any future increases in city expenditures.
“We don’t think additional revenue can be generated from our existing tax base,” Olson said.
Nathan West, the city’s community and economic development director, said the city will likely need future investment in capital projects or infrastructure to foster economic growth.
“We simply can’t afford to hunker down and wait out the hard economic time,” West said.
City Councilman Patrick Downie echoed this thought, adding that the city’s downtown waterfront redevelopment efforts — specifically the ongoing esplanade project along Railroad Avenue — are a good example of what the city should continue to strive for.
“There’s economic development going on down there now,” Downie said.
McKeen said city staff will provide specific routes toward economic development in the long-range financial plan when a draft version is presented to City Council members in May.
“Between now and the next time we come back to the council, we’ll fold some implementation strategies in there,” McKeen said.
Reporter Jeremy Schwartz can be reached at 360-452-2345, ext. 5074, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.