City looking at cost-saving measures for ’09 budget

City of Kent officials may leave open as many as 100 jobs over the rest of the year, in an effort to reduce spending due to rising costs and declining tax revenue.

City of Kent officials may leave open as many as 100 jobs over the rest of the year, in an effort to reduce spending due to rising costs and declining tax revenue.

Kent Mayor Suzette Cooke sent an e-mail last week to the city’s more than 800 employees to outline her cost-saving measures. Cooke also instituted a delay on the replacement of city vehicles and asked for department directors to review consultant contracts to see if those contracts can be postponed or scrapped.

“I am choosing to be proactive in insulating the city from severe financial and employment impacts,” Cooke said in a July 30 press release, reflecting those changes. “I’ve asked all department directors to find ways now that will soften the potential negative financial impacts next year.”

City officials estimate that sales tax revenue will fall about $2.5 million short of budget projections for 2008, said John Hodgson, chief administrative officer, in an interview Thursday. The city receives about 19 percent of its annual revenue from the sales tax.

By waiting to fill an estimated 100 to 125 positions that open through attrition before the end of the year, the city expects to save about $3 million.

Each open job will be looked at to determine if it needs to be filled right away or if the city can wait to fill the spot, Hodgson said. Only the most critical jobs will be filled.

City officials also expect to save as much as $1 million by getting as much as another year out of vehicles slated to be replaced.

The city projects fuel costs to jump more than $250,000 this year beyond what had been budgeted because of the increased costs of gas and diesel.

Cooke was unavailable for further comment. She left last week for a two-week trip to visit Kent’s sister city in Sunnfjord Area, Norway. Cooke paid for the trip with her own money, said Michelle Witham, city community and public affairs manager.

In addition to delays in hires, Cooke placed a hiring freeze on the vacant hire-ahead positions for the police and fire departments. City officials started the hire-ahead program because it can take anywhere from 12 to 18 months to train firefighters or police officers before they start work. In previous years, the police department had been short up to 15 officers.

But for the first time in at least five years, the police and fire departments are fully staffed, Hodgson said. Even though the city will no longer hire ahead for firefighters or officers, it will look to replace any positions that open through attrition.

“Mayor Cooke does not believe in across-the-board cuts,” Hodgson said. “She has her budget priorities.”

Those priorities include the basic government services of police, fire, roads, water, sewer and code enforcement; preservation of land-use policies; and human services that address food, shelter and health needs.

Department directors are beginning to work on their 2009 budgets. Cooke will present her proposed 2009 budget to the City Council in September.

Costs already have increased for 2009. Because the Consumer Price Index jumped to 6.2 percent, 2 percent higher than the city’s budget projection of 4.2 percent, the city will need to pay $1.5 million in 2009 to cover the cost of living increases under its labor contracts. Those figures were set based on the CPI on June 30.

On the bright side, city officials predict as much as $5.5 million in additional general fund revenue in 2009 from the Kent Events Center. The arena is slated to open Jan. 2, 2009.

The events center also is expected to bring in more sales tax revenue to the city from what people spend at restaurants, hotels and other retail businesses before or after they attend an event at the 6,025-seat arena.

But city officials are counting on reduced spending for the rest of 2008 to save the city from cutting jobs or projects. But cuts might have to be made if the softening economy continues to worsen.

“We’re very confident if we make the adjustments by the end of the year we’ll be healthy and have a balanced budget in 2009,” Hodgson said. “But it is hard to predict.”

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