City Council continues budget debate

Mark Maughan

Mark Maughan

The Kent City Council continues to disagree on the proposed 2009 city budget as well as on when to increase water rates and storm-drainage rates for residents as part of that budget.

The Operations Committee, comprised of Council members Tim Clark, Debbie Raplee and Les Thomas, voted 2-1 Nov. 18 to recommend adoption of the 2009 budget when the full Council meets Dec. 9.

Raplee and Thomas voted in favor of the proposed $166 million budget. Clark, chairman of the Operations Committee, opposed it.

The committee also voted 2-1, with Clark opposed, to recommend to the full Council an increase in water rates and storm-drainage rates starting April 1, 2009.

“I think it’s balanced and fair and I’m confident we’ll manage the budget,” Raplee said at the committee meeting. “We’ll get monthly updates (on city revenues), so we’ll know. I’m very comfortable we’ll be OK. If we have to make adjustments, we will.”

Clark disagreed with city staff predictions that sales-tax revenue will be flat in 2009. Clark said he expects sales-tax revenue to drop. That would leave the city with even less revenue.

“The part that’s hard for me is we’re saying to staff to gut it out and we’ll get through this,” Clark said. “I don’t believe that. My background tells me we’ll have a structural deficit if things do not come out how we like and we will be out of reserves for 2010. To hope things get better is not a good plan.”

Pierce County officials predict revenue drops of 7 percent, Clark said. A Seattle City Council member told Clark the city of Seattle expects revenue drops through 2010.

“Our budget says there will not be cuts,” Clark said. “But nine months from now when we say we didn’t think it would be this bad, I say you can predict that.”

John Hodgson, city chief administrative officer, told the committee that no layoffs are part of the budget. The city continues to hold open 15 to 25 positions. Hodgson expects the delay in hiring to fill open positions to save the city as much as $1.2 million.

The committee also considered proposed increases in utility rates.

Clark argued that the rate increases should begin Jan. 1, 2009 to help make sure the city can get started on projects to improve the water and storm-drainage systems.

Several Council members directed city staff to delay the utility-rate increases until next April because of the bad economy, saving residents from paying the new rates at the start of the year.

“By April 1, we hope the economy is better because it is an impact to residents,” Raplee said. “It’s also an impact to the city, but we can still get the work done.”

Basic water rates are slated to jump 15 percent per year over the next six years. That will cost a customer about $14 per year for in the first year of the water-rate increase. The storm-drainage rates will jump about $25 next year for the average customer, with an April 1 increase.

City staff recommended the water-rate increase to help the city pay for the operation, maintenance, replacement and expansion of the water system as required by federal and state regulations for fire codes and health standards. The expansion of the system also would enable the city to potentially sell excess water to neighboring jurisdictions.

The Council will consider the proposed utility-rate increases Dec. 9.

Residents will be able to testify about the budget at 7 p.m. Dec. 9 before the Council votes to adopt the budget.

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