Good news: Proposed Kent city budget would add new employees, start reserve fund

Kent Mayor Suzette Cooke presented a 2011 proposed budget to the City Council Tuesday that calls for hiring 17 new employees as well as establishing reserve funds of $2 million to help fight Green River flooding and cover lost tax revenues if two state liquor initiatives are approved by voters.

Kent Mayor Suzette Cooke presented a 2011 proposed budget to the City Council Tuesday that calls for hiring 17 new employees as well as establishing reserve funds of $2 million to help fight Green River flooding and cover lost tax revenues if two state liquor initiatives are approved by voters.

Cooke plans to hire eight police officers, with six of those assigned to the Panther Lake area, whose 24,000 residents annexed to the city in July. The city also would hire five employees in other departments to help serve Panther Lake and three for the rest of the city.

“We’re still not out of the water,” Cooke said in a phone interview Wednesday. “We are setting aside dollars for the liquor initiatives because if they pass we’ll take a $1 million hit.”

The proposed $146 million operating budget, including a $62 million general fund budget, now goes to the City Council for final approval. Residents can testify about the budget at a 5 p.m. Nov. 2 public hearing at City Hall. The Council expects to adopt the budget at its Dec. 14 meeting.

City cuts of $7 million last spring, as well as an estimated $4 million in revenue from the state next year to help pay for the Panther Lake annexation, has put the city budget in much better shape than King County and surrounding cities such as Seattle and Tukwila, all of which are facing budget cuts.

Most of the new hires will be funded with state annexation funds returned to the city through a sales tax rebate on purchases in Kent.

Kent also has saved roughly $4 million in costs next year because it no longer fully funds the Kent Fire Department, now part of a regional fire authority with King County Fire District 37 and Covington. Kent will pay $3.5 million next year to the fire authority for arson investigations, fire inspections and emergency medical services.

If approved by voters, state Initiatives 1100 and 1105 would get the state out of the liquor business and reduce tax revenues to the city.

Cooke has proposed to set aside $1 million for flood relief in case the city needs to combat Green River flooding this winter because the Howard Hanson Dam still needs more repairs by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to be fully operational.

If the city does not need to spend the funds for flooding or to replace lost liquor tax revenue, Cooke wants to use that money to build a reserve fund.

“We’ve done the heavy lifting and presented a balanced budget and a plan to start rebuilding funds for the future,” Cooke said.

Councilman Ron Harmon likes the plan for a reserve fund.

“I think we should continue to make sure we have money in emergency reserves,” Harmon said in a phone interview.

But Harmon would like to see more money spent to repair roads than Cooke’s proposed $500,000. Cooke also plans to spend $300,000 on sidewalks.

“If we use the money we have from not funding a fire department, we could put $1.5 million into roads,” Harmon said. “We also could use $1.2 million for a (railroad) quiet zone and tuck away the balance in an emergency fund.”

City transportation officials are studying construction improvements at downtown railroad crossings so train engineers would no longer have to sound their horns at crossings.

Overall, Harmon supports the proposed budget.

“It’s a good start,” he said.

City finance director Bob Nachlinger said the cuts last spring will continue to help balance the budget next year even if revenues remain flat as expected from sales, property and utility taxes.

“It’s kind of nice to not be worried about cutting the budget for a change,” Nachlinger said.

City employees will not receive any cost of living expenses, but no longer will have to take furlough days.

Cooke said the budget counts on the Legislature to continue to provide nearly $5 million per year to the city through the streamlined sales tax mitigation fund as well as the $4 million per year to help offset annexation costs.

“That’s why it feels like a reserved relief,” Cooke said about her cut-free budget. “We are very dependent on the streamlined sales tax fund and the annexation dollars.”

City officials have closely watched the state budget the last couple of years to see whether the Legislature reduces the streamlined sales tax mitigation fund or the annexation funds. So far, the Legislature has not cut those funds.

Proposed 2011 city hires

• 8 police officers, 6 dedicated to annexation area

• 2 parks, 1 finance, 1 info tech, 1 employee services to annexation area

• 2 public works for litter control, cost covered by new garbage contract

• 1 public works employee, 1 parks citywide

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