Last year, the task of organizing a municipal budget generated a fair degree of turbulence for the Liberty Lake City Council and staff at City Hall.
This time around, authorities are hoping for a smoother landing.
At Tuesday night’s City Council meeting, the 2012 budget made an early appearance, headlining a workshop that included a thorough discussion about staff and council member expectations as well as a process review and a look ahead to the calendar for organizing and implementing next year’s blueprint for revenue and expenditures.
“We want to get an earlier start this year,” said Liberty Lake Mayor Wendy Van Orman.
The end of 2010 was marked by a series of tumultuous budget hearings as the city proposed cutbacks to popular entities like the municipal library and city-owned golf course, Trailhead at Liberty Lake. To counteract an anticipated $700,000 deficit for 2011, the city passed a 6-percent utility tax on phone, gas, cable and electric services and increased property tax from $1.55 per $1,000 of assessed property value to $1.72 per $1,000.
Council Member Susan Schuler, who walked out of a budget meeting last December after a disagreement with Van Orman, said on Tuesday that having financial data earlier in the process would be of assistance to the council. Schuler requested all relevant information on the utility tax as well as a report comparing the current budget to a pair of previous years – 2007 and 2008.
Schuler acknowledged that it may be difficult to generate such reports considering that budget tracking systems have undergone changes over the years. Community Development Director Doug Smith confirmed that varying formats and categories would muddle comparisons to some extent, but did say the city could produce the requested data in some form “with some explanation.”
“You’re not going to have exact replicas,” he said. “We’ll do the best we can.”
Council Member Josh Beckett, a candidate for mayor this November against former mayor Steve Peterson, said it would be important to have the latest numbers on the city’s debt as well as the steps that were being taken to retire that debt. Beckett added that he had met with the library board recently as a way “to reach out to them earlier in the budget process.”
Library supporters spoke out last year against proposed cutbacks to staff and library hours that some felt shortchanged citizens and library employee. Van Orman originally introduced a yearly budget of $319,000 for the library, although the final amount was approved at $340,000.
“I think it’s important that we avoid any issue or things going sideways like they did last year,” Beckett said.
Schuler brought up the possibility of council members receiving their informational packets earlier than the Friday before Tuesday meetings as a way to better prepare for discussions on the budget and other matters.
“Part of the frustration is that you want us to answer these questions but we don’t have enough time to prepare the answers,” Schuler said.
Council Member Judi Owens disagreed, saying receiving packets on Friday provided ample opportunity to study the issues and speak with city staff before a Tuesday meeting.
Smith said the city could provide certain information on the municipal FTP site, but added a procedural transition might be required to deliver the packets earlier.
“Right now, the policy is in place,” he said. “To get it by Wednesday, we need to change the policy.”
Van Orman added that council members could give the staff a better chance to prepare for questions by reviewing their packets earlier and bringing up concerns prior to City Council meetings.
“Our challenge is to anticipate what your questions will be,” Smith said.
In other council news:
- Van Orman provided a review of a report on the city’s human resources that included 50 interviews and 200 pages of data. While employees enjoy working in Liberty Lake and feel like they are treated fairly, there were some concerns expressed in areas like communication and chain of command. Van Orman brought up the possibility of adding more workshops to a current schedule of council meetings on the first and third Tuesday of each month as a way to improve communication. She added that the city’s organizational chart needs to be updated. Beckett said the City Council could do a better job of improving efficiencies at meetings. As Tuesday’s meeting closed in on the three-hour mark, Beckett said city officials “could use time more wisely…and make decisions instead of reacting to a lot of things being said.”
- Council approved by a 4-0 vote (Council Members Ryan Romney, Cris Kaminskas and Odin Langford were absent) Ordinance 195, establishing an annual utility tax rebate program for the city’s senior, low-income and disabled, low-income residents.