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Council hones in on infrastructure funding, leans toward SCRAPS renewal
12/5/2012 10:11:37 AM

By Craig Howard
Splash Contributor

You could say that Tuesday night's Liberty Lake City Council meeting involved some heavy LIFTing - though by the end of the discussion, not much had changed regarding the recognized value of a mechanism used to fund infrastructure upgrades and spur economic development.

The LIFT - Local Infrastructure Financing Tool - has been in place in Liberty Lake since 2006, when the community was selected along with Vancouver and Bellingham as the inaugural municipal trio in Washington state to benefit from a funding source that reimburses developers for improvements to roads, sewer and other baseline amenities. The LIFT branched off from something called the TIF - Tax Increment Financing - in which a percentage of property tax revenue is utilized to finance community development.

Mayor Steve Peterson, a proponent of TIF/LIFT from the start, has continually reminded skeptics that the city benefits from a state grant format that matches Liberty Lake's contribution dollar for dollar. On Tuesday, the mayor illustrated the LIFT advantage with the visual aid of a $10 bill. Applying the city's normal interest rate of 0.125, Peterson emerged with a sum of $10.01. He then contrasted the return with the combination of the state LIFT match and interest, resulting in a tally of $20.02.   

"It's an opportunity to provide the city with a return on its investment," Peterson said. "It's a good value."

While Peterson made his case, at least two council representatives - Josh Beckett and Lori Olander - expressed concern over the LIFT agenda. Beckett issued a reminder that Spokane County still served as the ultimate facilitator of LIFT funds, a point confirmed by City Attorney Sean Boutz, who stated that the county acts as the "sponsoring jurisdiction" for LIFT dollars based on required statutes.

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Along with a decision to dedicate $321,000 from the city's general fund as a LIFT match for this year, council was asked to vote on a resolution updating the city's list of projects earmarked for LIFT funding from 2013 to 2015.

"If we approve $321,000 this year, they're going to ask for $700,000 next year," Beckett said. "This is not the best use of city dollars."

Olander raised a red flag on the outline of projects, questioning the value of improvements to Indiana Avenue within the context of economic development. Ultimately, Olander's amendment to remove Indiana from the list failed 5-2 with Beckett offering the only additional dissenting vote.

The LIFT match from the general fund was approved by a 6-1 margin, with Olander standing alone in the minority.

Finance Director R.J. Stevenson said the list of capital improvement projects tied to LIFT "communicated the city's expectations to the county."

"This is our seat at the table," he said.

Many of the seats in council chambers on Tuesday were occupied by supporters of the county's animal protection agency, which finds itself at the center of a debate over the renewal of the city contract for 2013. Nearly a dozen backers of Spokane County Regional Animal Protection Service testified at the meeting, with many critical of the city of Spokane's animal control provider, SpokAnimal, mentioned by Liberty Lake officials as a possible alternative to SCRAPS.

Police Chief Brian Asmus gave an update on the matter Tuesday, indicating that the city was leaning toward a contract renewal with SCRAPS based on approval from Spokane County commissioners on Dec. 11. The contract would then go back to the City Council for a vote.

"We're trying to secure the best service for the best value," Asmus said.

Asmus said the city's most recent stance was based in part on reports that the city of Spokane is supportive of a regional approach to animal protection, a scenario that would likely put SCRAPS as the lead agency. Spokane's contract with SpokAnimal concludes at the end of 2013.

Asmus said SCRAPS has acknowledged the importance of an increased emphasis on licensing dogs and cats, an issue brought up often by Peterson. He referenced the success of the animal control agency in Calgary, Alberta, that served as the impetus of SCRAPS' formation. The organization is funded solely through licensing fees and fines, with an overall license compliance rate of 95 percent.

Applause filled the room when Asmus announced the city's decision regarding SCRAPS, though the contract still hinges on council ratification later this month. Beckett reminded those in attendance that improved licensing numbers would be "the responsibility of SCRAPS and the entire community."

The third major topic of the evening -passage of the 2013 city budget along with the future status of the embattled utility tax - never materialized as Stevenson's presentation broached the 10 p.m. meeting deadline. Council will tackle the financial game plan for next year on the Dec. 18 agenda, no doubt considering some of the comments offered by citizens Tuesday night.

The first came from Brandon Hunt of Huntwood, a custom cabinet manufacturer and one of the companies most critical of the utility tax since it was introduced two years ago. Hunt reminded council members that the tax began as a way to cover an anticipated budget shortfall, but instead "has been used to pay off debts and fund other items."

Hunt said the tax will cost Huntwood around $50,000 this year, a total representing one-third of the overall taxes the company pays to the city. He called on council to place the tax on the ballot for a public vote.

Nancy Holmes of Avista also addressed council on behalf of a utility tax task force organized by the Greater Spokane Valley Chamber of Commerce. Holmes gave credit to the city and particularly Stevenson for providing a clearer perspective on the tax and the municipal budget. She also applauded the decision to decrease the tax from its original rate of 6 percent to the current level of 3 percent.

Holmes said the task force has indicated concern in the past "over where revenue from the utility tax goes." She said the decision to dedicate funds in 2013 to road maintenance and upgrades "is an improvement."

"Now we understand it's going to a street fund," she said.

Holmes encouraged the city to "continue with a comprehensive review of the utility tax and all taxes" remaining open to the utility tax being eliminated, decreased or reformatted in a way that lightens the burden on manufacturing companies by lessening the rate on electricity and natural gas.

Liberty Lake resident Pat Dockrey spoke out in support of the utility tax, noting that it acts as a stable revenue source when sales and property tax income can fluctuate depending on the strength of the economy.

"If you're going to cut the utility tax, you're going to have to cut your budget," Dockrey said. "It's not going to work otherwise."

Council Member Shane Brickner, a member of the city's finance committee, noted after the meeting that while public testimony and emails on animal protection have been considerable over the past month or so, he has yet to receive an email from any citizen regarding next year's budget. Council has until Dec. 31 to approve the document.

"The budget is online at the city's website," Brickner said. "We want to hear people's ideas and concerns."

Along with the Dec. 18 City Council meeting, City Hall will host two workshops this month. The first - on the municipal development code - will take place at 5 p.m. today (Thursday). A workshop on the proposed roundabout at Harvard, Mission and Interstate 90 will be held at 6 p.m. Dec. 13.

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