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Property tax, animal control headline hearing
11/14/2012 10:12:38 AM

By Craig Howard
Splash Contributor

Government savvy citizens tracking the latest budget process in Liberty Lake should probably add "MBQ" to their convenient list of municipal acronyms.

The innovation of "Mayor's Budget Questions" now makes it possible for representatives of the City Council to email Mayor Steve Peterson, City Administrator Katy Allen and other city staff concerning the preliminary budget that Peterson first presented to council on Oct. 16. So far, there have been 30 such inquiries from the governing board, according to Finance Director R.J. Stevenson. Residents are also welcome to send their budgetary questions to the team at City Hall.

"It's given us an opportunity to give council complete, detailed answers," Peterson said at the initial public hearing on the 2013 budget Tuesday night. "We're trying to get information turned around as quickly as possible as well as meet with the committees and reach out more. We're hoping to make this the most transparent, easy-to-understand budget we've ever had."

Tuesday's meeting still included some of the old-fashioned, face-to-face chatter that has defined the formation of the fiscal terrain in Liberty Lake since incorporation. Council Member Lori Olander spoke up when Stevenson outlined plans for a 1-percent increase in property tax for next year that would raise approximately $19,000 for police capital purchases, namely a speed monitor trailer and park surveillance cameras. The shift would only impact the city's portion of property tax and represent around $5 yearly on a home valued at $300,000.

"This doesn't seem to jive with our thoughts about economic development," said Olander, who also raised concerns about the city's retention of the 3-percent utility tax, particularly when compared to rates in neighboring cities like Spokane Valley.

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Property tax ($1.845 million) and sales tax ($1.94 million) once again represent the pillars on the projected revenue side, comprising a hefty 80 percent of the anticipated cash flow. In a change from previous years, Peterson's plan dedicates $662,000 from the utility tax solely to street maintenance and street capital projects.

Meanwhile, a steady increase in citywide residential construction over the past year has meant a boon to the building permit coffers. The proposed number for licensing and permits in 2013 is $360,000, representing 7 percent of overall projected revenue.

The tumult of last year's recommended cuts to the library and municipal golf course failed to surface this time around as Stevenson reviewed the agenda of proposed expenditures. Law enforcement takes up the largest chunk at 38 percent, ringing in at just over $1.7 million. The plan would include one additional officer and police vehicle for 2013.

The library would be allotted $415,680 for 2013 under the mayor's proposal, representing a 9-percent slice of the general fund.

"The library acts as a community center that we don't have," said Jeanne Harmer, one of two library advocates to take the stand on Tuesday. "Please support this library and don't have us struggle for the budget every year."

Green space in Liberty Lake would continue to receive its share of green, according to Peterson's budget. Parks would receive $517,125 for next year (12 percent of overall expenditures) while a shift in the parks maintenance staff would bring the total number of workers from seven to 14.

Along with the elimination of $120,000 for a community development director's position - longtime director Doug Smith departed in August after a decade with the city and has not been replaced - the preliminary budget included zeroing out the cost of animal control. On Tuesday, Police Chief Brian Asmus provided the latest update on the city's approach to the issue, starting with the news that he and Allen had met with representatives of Spokanimal - the city of Spokane's animal protection agency - earlier in the day.

Asmus noted that Liberty Lake spent $11,618 with Spokane County Regional Animal Protection Service in 2012, a total derived from the agency's expenses of $28,678 minus $17,060 in dog and cat license revenue. The city contracted with SCRAPS from incorporation until 2004 when the police department took over the responsibility with help from local veterinarians and Spokanimal. In 2008, Liberty Lake reunited with SCRAPS and has remained with the agency to the present.

If the city did take back the responsibility of animal protection, Asmus said the cost of $28,940 - which would include police time, licensing costs and other expenditures - would be largely offset by the increase in licensing revenue. With a more proactive approach, the city estimates it could generate $20,000 in fees, resulting in an overall cost of $8,940.

Despite the savings, Council Member Cris Kaminskas said she was not enthused with the idea of city police officers "spending their valuable time on animal control."

Along with the SCRAPS and law enforcement options, Asmus presented three additional scenarios - the first, a city model with no staffing; the second a collaboration with Spokanimal featuring licensing revenue of $17,000 that would completely offset expenses and a final proposal that would result in no animal protection program at all.

Ultimately, Asmus emerged with a recommendation to place $17,000 into the 2013 budget for animal control with the premise that an equal proportion in licensing revenue "would make it budget neutral."

Kaminskas proposed that a future workshop be scheduled on the issue after SCRAPS Executive Director Nancy Hill responded to an impromptu series of questions from council. The city has until Dec. 31 to pass a budget for next year, although on Tuesday, Stevenson mentioned Dec. 4 as a date for reaching council consensus on the document.

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