The task of preparing and passing a municipal budget in the city of Liberty Lake last year was anything but a walk in the park.
A projected $700,000 deficit for 2011 paved the way for talks that eventually led to the city’s first hike in property tax since incorporation in 2001 as well as the implementation of a 6-percent utility tax. The preliminary budget also included cutbacks to civic pillars like the city library and municipal golf course, most of which were withdrawn before the final rendition was approved by the City Council.
The process included citizens speaking out against proposed reductions, City Council members walking out of meetings and general concern over a lack of administrative control. This year, Mayor Wendy Van Orman, the city’s finance committee and the City Council have all indicated that launching budget talks earlier and in a more organized manner would be a top priority.
The debate and discussion over revenue and expenditures in Liberty Lake last year all took place without the assistance of a city finance director, a role that has sat vacant at City Hall since 2008 when Arlene Fisher left to work as the city administrator in Cheney. Since then, the responsibility of organizing city finances has fallen upon Community Development Director Doug Smith and Administrative Services Manager Jessica Platt who left the city this summer to work as the finance director in West Richland.
In August, it was announced that R.J. Stevenson, most recently the assistant finance director in the city of Washougal, about 10 miles north of Vancouver, would be hired as the second finance director in Liberty Lake’s 10-year history. In addition his job as the assistant finance director, Stevenson worked as Washougal’s city accountant and interim finance director over a space of nearly seven years.
Despite the challenge of taking over a department that has gone without an official lead for nearly four years, Stevenson said he is looking forward to the challenge.
“I’m enthused about the budget process,” he said. “My goal is to provide a framework for what they’ve put in place and look at where the city wants to go financially.”
The utility tax – which places a 6-percent toll on electric, gas, cable, phone and waste disposal services – has already emerged as a prominent topic in the conversation for next year. Some city leaders have described it as a way to temporarily bridge the gap until the economy stabilizes and revenue from sales and property tax returns to pre-recession levels. Other have indicated that, in light of cuts from the state and increases in other areas, the tax should remain on some level.
Stevenson said he will continue to research “the pros and cons” of the issue as part of the larger budget picture.
“I just want to make sure we have a transparent process when putting together this budget,” he said. “Everything should be well-communicated.”
Stevenson did note that Liberty Lake was one of only a handful of cities in Washington that did not have a utility tax in place before last year. In Washougal, residents are taxed 6 percent for phone, electric and cable along with 4 percent for gas. The city-owned utility in the town of 14,760 residents levies 20 percent for water and 10 percent for sewer. Liberty Lake, which has contracted with the Liberty Lake Sewer and Water District since incorporation, has not applied a tax on either service to this point.
Stevenson said the city’s approach to capital projects will have a significant impact on the budget for 2012 and beyond. Most recently the City Council has been discussing a list of nearly 20 street projects that comprise the latest rendition of the Transportation Improvement Plan, an outline for road upgrades from 2012-2017.
Stevenson was officially introduced at the last City Council meeting on Sept. 20. He applied for the job in early July and was hired on Aug. 4. Prior to his tenure with the city of Washougal, Stevenson worked in the financial office for Portland-based Cascadia Behavioral Health Care.
A native of Michigan, Stevenson graduated with a degree in accounting from Ferris State University in Big Rapids, Mich., before taking his first accounting job with Mount Hood Meadows Ski Resort in Oregon. Married with three kids, Stevenson said the move to Liberty Lake was based partly on a hope of “getting away from the rain.”
“That basically eliminated everywhere along the I-5 corridor,” he said.
Stevenson said he is looking forward to Eastern Washington’s traditional seasons and corresponding weather, especially the snow. He is an avid skier, hiker and outdoorsman.
From the prevalence of bike and walking paths to the layout of city streets, Stevenson said he has been impressed with the organization of Liberty Lake from a design standpoint. He also noted the “potential for growth” in the city, particularly the burgeoning River District to the northwest. The preponderance of car dealerships (and the accompanying sales revenue) in the same general area, Stevenson said, “give a new finance director some confidence.”
Smith said Stevenson will be a welcome addition to City Hall.
“He brings a good financial background and municipal experience,” Smith said. “He’s got an easygoing manner and even-keeled disposition that should serve him well in this environment.”