Kent Council debates whether mayor’s budget will work

A Kent City Council budget workshop turned into a debate among the Council, Mayor Suzette Cooke and city staff about whether to reduce Cooke's proposed 2009 city budget.

A Kent City Council budget workshop turned into a debate among the Council, Mayor Suzette Cooke and city staff about whether to reduce Cooke’s proposed 2009 city budget.

“We have to have a budget a little leaner,” Councilwoman Elizabeth Albertson said at the workshop Tuesday night at City Hall. “I don’t want to have to touch our reserve fund. This budget is not ready to go.”

Cooke, who initially presented her budget at an Oct. 7 workshop, remained confident that her proposed $163.4 million budget could be adjusted next year if revenues drop more than expected. A drop in revenues would lead to cuts in city services or jobs.

“I don’t know why it’s an advantage to the city to base the budget on a worst-case scenario and cut in the beginning versus efficiencies built-in to save,” Cooke told the Council. “We’ll manage it as time goes on. I don’t plan to scramble (if revenues fall short). We’ll have constant monitoring.”

The Council ran out of time to give city staff direction about the budget because the workshop ran long – right up to the start time of the regular Council meeting.

A third budget workshop is slated for 4 p.m. Nov. 4. The Council is expected to consider formal adoption of the budget Nov. 18.

“If nothing happens before Nov. 4, we’ll get direction then,” said John Hodgson, city chief administrative officer, in a phone interview Wednesday.

Hodgson plans to meet before Nov. 4 with Council President Debbie Raplee to see whether any consensus can be reached by the Council about the steps city staff should take next with the budget.

Hodgson told the Council Tuesday that city staff would need a specific figure, if the Council wants the budget reduced. Hodgson added that any budget reduction of $1 million or more would require the city to cut jobs.

“If you want to cut $3 million, that’s people,” Hodgson said. “About 80 percent of our budget is for personnel.”

Cooke plans to continue the city’s policy, started in August, to leave vacant as many as 100 jobs in an effort to reduce spending, due to rising costs and declining tax revenues. About 30 jobs are vacant now. She also plans to delay spending on capital projects early next year, to reduce travel by departments and reduce the number of private contractors used by the city.

“I don’t think that will be enough,” Albertson said.

Councilwoman Deborah Ranniger questioned whether any layoffs should be done at the start of 2009.

“It’s difficult to figure out if the economy will slide down or go back up,” Ranniger said. “If we anticipate the sky will fall and lay off 20 people and the economy goes up, we can’t just hire those 20 back, it would not make sense. I’d rather be cautiously optimistic and lag positions until March or April.”

Councilman Tim Clark disagreed with the prediction by Bob Nachlinger, city finance director, that sales tax revenue will stay flat in 2009 and bring in $25 million to the city next year, the same amount of revenue as in 2008. Clark expects sales tax revenue to drop as consumers spend less money in 2009 than they did in 2008.

“It’s an illogical position to expect the same amount of sales tax next year as this year,” Clark said. “I have difficulty with that. I expect it to decline further.”

To wait another six months before making any changes to the budget could cause bigger problems next year, Clark said. “Delaying the pain now will increase the pain later.”

Councilwoman Jamie Danielson said she wants to see how city staff plans to save money under a worst-case scenario put on the table now.

“I would like to see creative ways to save,” Danielson said.

Councilman Les Thomas said he thought the mayor’s proposed budget could work.

“We’re more commercially balanced than other cities around us,” Thomas said. “I’m cautiously optimistic with the backup plan, Plan B, in mind.”

During a public hearing on the budget at the regular Council meeting, two people asked the Council to consider an increase in how much money the city gives to H.O.M.E., an organization which operates an overnight homeless shelter at area churches for men in Kent.

Residents will be able to speak about the budget again Nov. 18 when the Council considers adoption of the budget.

Contact Steve Hunter at 253-872-6600, ext. 5052 or

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