City budget on the right track


At 220 pages, Mayor Dan Pike’s proposed city budget is a long yet interesting document. The current plan calls for maintaining a budget as close to 2008 numbers as possible, including actually dropping employee numbers from 916.3 to 910.5. While the budget does not call for any layoffs, it does recommend leaving current vacant positions unfilled during a “soft” hiring freeze.

At the same time, the mayor is recommending allocating 1.7 full-time equivalent positions to the newly created Bellingham Public Developent Authority. This is envisioned as the city’s real estate arm and will be responsible for development of the city’s property, including parts of the waterfront.

“I consider it a key part of our efforts to help us grow out of this economic slump,” Pike states in the document.

Where this gets interesting is that the mayor states in the report that he will task the PDA board to aid the business community with economic development and to help “broker the customers to local resources, such as those whom the City subcontracts, e.g. Economic Development Council, Sustainable Connections, Small Business Development Center, etc.” Noticeably absent from this list of partners is the Bellingham/Whatcom Chamber of Commerce and the Port of Bellingham, whose mission includes regional economic development.

In fact the port, in their own recent budgeting efforts, has set aside $100,000 of their economic development budget to bolster marine trades, agri-industry, adventure tourism and manufacturing. But the port seems to be absent from the city’s “welcoming, accessible front door to business enterprises.”

The mayor’s budget message goes on to highlight creation of a Neighborhood Anti-Crime Team; setting aside at least $150,000 for a future Lake Whatcom watershed initiative and another $764,000 for waterfront development; creation of a new public-private Sustainability Strategies Council to attract green businesses; work on emergency preparedness; delay the opening of the new Whatcom Art & Children’s Museum until fall 2009; and meeting population density goals through urban villages and the Infill Toolkit.

Generally, the mayor reiterates several times the need to implement these new programs while maintaining city services and not raising taxes on local property owners and businesses. What we’re left with is a city budget that seems to succeed at those goals, but is dependent on zero revenue growth. This would be fine under normal circumstances, but these days are anything but normal. Revenue numbers that are affected by the current economic crisis have yet to come in. We are currently at 0.4 percent revenue growth, according to the city’s September general fund revenue numbers, and this line could go through the floor once October data comes in.

If — and possibly when — this happens, the city will be faced with the difficult task of either cutting services or raising taxes. As this process continues, it would be prudent to continually monitor the situation and reassess the budget in another six months.

If worse comes to worse, the city should slim down as much as is prudent before resorting to raising taxes on an already-stressed business community. Because, like the city and county budgets, we’re all feeling the heat.


Off Beat

by Rik Dalvit


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