Kent city budget passes on skimpy 4-3 vote

Kent Police Officer J. Bishop runs automobile license plates through a database using his patrol car’s laptop while patrolling Thursday. In spite of some financial belt-tightening by the city

Kent Police Officer J. Bishop runs automobile license plates through a database using his patrol car’s laptop while patrolling Thursday. In spite of some financial belt-tightening by the city

The Kent City Council adopted the 2009 city budget by the narrowest of margins: 4-3.

Three Council members voted against the budget, stating they wanted to implement more aggressive budget cuts now because of the recession, and expressing fears that city revenues will drop further next year than projected by city staff.

“This budget spends money before we know we have it and is not pro-active,” Councilwoman Elizabeth Albertson said, before voting against the proposed spending plan. “I can’t put the people in Kent on the hook for an unrealistic budget. I can’t put my name on a budget not based in reality. It’s $3 million to $4 million off.”

In addition to Albertson, council members Tim Clark and Jamie Danielson also voted against the budget.

But Council President Debbie Raplee, Deborah Ranniger, Ron Harmon and Les Thomas gave the thumbs up to the $166.7 million budget, arguing that cuts can be made next year, if necessary.

“There’s no reason to panic and slash the budget,” Ranniger said before the vote. “We don’t really know what will happen in January or February. Hope is valuable now. I’ll not give up.”

Council members have disagreed about the city’s financial picture since Mayor Suzette Cooke presented her proposed budget to the Council in October.

The Council will receive monthly budget reports next year from city Finance Director Bob Nachlinger in an effort to adjust the spending plan if revenues from the sales tax, permit fees, utility fees and other sources drop more than projected.

“The budget is merely a plan,” Thomas said, of why he supported the plan. “It’s not in concrete. We can react if we need to. Everything is on hold now, but it may be we need to lay off employees. But it’s a very conservative, good budget.”

Cooke presented the budget to the Council before the vote. She said the budget cuts spending by $920,000.

Those cuts include a phased in cost-of-living increase for city employees, with increases of 2.8 percent on Jan. 1, 2009 and 2.7 percent on July 1, rather than one 5.5 percent jump that would have taken place Jan. 1. That would save about $550,000 if city officials can reach agreements with the labor unions representing various factions of city staff. City department leaders also are planning to reduce operational costs (supplies, traveling, training, contracts, small equipment) to save a total of $370,000.

Cooke also said city staff will freeze $2.3 million in expenses in 2009. That includes $1.2 million by delaying hiring for open positions, although that won’t affect hiring plans for police officers and firefighters in the upcoming year.

The city will freeze spending on $860,000 worth of capital projects. That includes holding off on replacement fencing around various city facilities, refraining from purchasing new computers, delaying design plans for a planned jail renovation, and waiting to install card-key entries at two buildings, said John Hodgson, chief administrative officer.

“Our plan for 2009 is monitoring closely the budget reports every month on revenues so we can take immediate action,” Cooke told the Council.

Nachlinger added that the city expects to see declines in revenue in the first two quarters of next year, but growth in the third and fourth quarters.

“The net downturn in the first and second quarters will be about 5 percent and growth in the third and fourth quarters will total about 5 percent, so it will be a flat revenue stream,” Nachlinger said. “That’s how we built the budget.”

But a few of the Council members stated they wanted to see a smaller budget because of the uncertain economy.

“Everyone is tightening their belts; the city should do the same,” Danielson said. “We need to set priorities on where the cuts should occur. I feel we are passing that off to staff. Further cuts will be needed.”

Councilman Clark has stated since an October budget workshop that he expects sales-tax revenue to drop further than what city staff predicts.

“I’m upset we’ve not done our job,” Clark said. “This is not a long-term plan. We’re going forward on the hope that next year will be better and the state or federal government will be there for us.”

Raplee responded to Clark and Albertson with a more positive spin on the budget.

“We can make adjustments at any time,” Raplee said. “I think this budget is good. I’m comfortable with it.”

Ranniger and Cooke encouraged residents to shop in Kent to help the city raise revenue.

“Spend money here in Kent, part of the sales tax comes back to the city,” Ranniger said. “Rather than go to the new Costco in Covington, go to WinCo or the Great Wall Mall.”

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