Cover Story: Budget bracketology
11/26/2013 2:47:52 PM
By Craig Howard
Each fall, proposed expenditures in the upcoming Liberty Lake budget soar through the air like bugs on an interstate highway.
Ultimately, some stick and others don't.
There have been certain years when the process has included recommendations that don't quite fly with most residents - like prospective cuts to city institutions. In 2010, with city revenues reflecting the effects of a nationwide recession, Mayor Wendy Van Orman's financial strategy revealed major reductions at the municipal library and Trailhead at Liberty Lake Golf Course. The cutbacks were eventually tempered after a storm of citizen concern. The following year, a key - though embattled - revenue source went through a transition of its own as the utility tax rate was lowered from 6 to 3 percent.
These days, Mayor Steve Peterson uses phrases like "staying ahead of the curve" and "a concisely transparent approach to spending" that defined his first terms at City Hall from 2001 through 2007. Peterson's proposed budget for 2014 includes funds for trademark Liberty Lake features like greenspace, infrastructure and community gathering places.
While the City Council has until Dec. 31 to approve next year's budget, certain expenditures - like $100,000 for artwork at the Harvard Road roundabout - have already been ushered aside. Other projects, like the Liberty Lake Ball Fields, have experienced some turbulence in the weeks leading up to the final confirmation. Meanwhile, the governing board has seen the importance of adding dollars in some cases, such as $130,000 for restroom facilities at a potential Townsquare Park in the middle of the city.
The Liberty Lake City Council is expected to cement its decision on the 10 items featured in this story, and much more during the month of December. While the deadline for approving the 2014 municipal budget is Dec. 31, official passage is expected at the Dec. 3 or Dec. 17 regular meeting.
While conjecture over the budget may not match the frenzied speculation that accompanies the college basketball bracket each March, there is always a certain element of spectator sport that surrounds City Hall before the end of the year. This month, instead of the Road to the Final Four, the Splash has mapped out the "Trail to the Top 10" - our picks for the best of the budget in 2014. Only time will tell what items are fortunate enough to be approved and move on.
As with bracketology, opinions and fan support can vary widely.
1. Liberty Lake Ball Fields
Background: City Council voted 5-2 on Nov. 5 to move ahead with the construction contract for two baseball diamonds on property purchased from the Central Valley School District last year. The project was briefly tabled a week earlier when a split council vote (the board was one short of a full quorum) put the bid in limbo. Some on council - including Odin Langford and Josh Beckett - continue to express concerns over what may happen to the fields if and when CVSD reclaims the land. Meanwhile, proponents of the project say the fields will mean a long overdue local venue for community teams.
Timeline: Construction to begin in spring of 2014, depending on the weather. Contract stipulates 85 days from start to completion.
Price tag: The city has already spent $71,000 on design work. The contract with KRCI LLC consists of $794,258.51 for the fields, a parking lot, paved walking path, warning track bordering one outfield fence and construction contingencies.
City Hall chatter:
"One of our tenants at the beginning of 2012 was to take brown fields and turn them into green fields - this is one of those success stories." - Mayor Steve Peterson
"We should wait for the school district to determine if that site will be considered in the 2015 bond before we spend any city resources to construct these fields." - Council Member Josh Beckett
"Another great partnership project." Council Member Cris Kaminskas
"Way beyond what any elementary or middle school would need or build if it was on their own dime." - Mayor Pro Tem Odin Langford
"I'm excited to build something that our community can be proud of." - City Administrator Katy Allen
2. Town Square Park
Background: The city purchased 6.4 acres along Meadowwood Lane in 2005 for $1.75 million. Since then, not much has happened on this patch of land that serves as a dusky backdrop to the Liberty Lake Farmers Market. A capital bond that would have generated $9.8 million for the construction of a community center and library on the site was resoundingly voted down in 2008. Allen presented council with scaled-down plans for the property in September. That presentation morphed into a proposal to add 39 parking spaces, a grass amphitheater, trails and landscaping on 2 of the 6.4 acres.
Timeline: Construction bid to go out in February or March of 2014; bid to be awarded in April or May with the project to be completed by the end of the summer.
Price tag: The budget of $785,000 would be slightly defrayed by a contribution from the Spokane Transit Authority in the amount of $80,000. The city's portion would come from real estate excise tax ($580,000), general fund ($170,000) and the stormwater fund ($35,000).
City Hall chatter:
"Even though a partial improvement to the 6.4 acres would utilize land that is currently not being used, I am not convinced that we should start a project without planning for the entire property." - Council Member Keith Kopelson
"There are so many advantages to this project - parking for STA, a park for our residents that live in that area of town who don't have a park right now, Farmers Market and more." - City Administrator Allen
"With considerable needs within the city like road repairs and lack of street lighting, building this park makes no sense to me." - Council Member Beckett
"Community response to this project has been very good." - Mayor Peterson
"Another example of a nice, feel good, but unnecessary project." - Council Member Langford
3. Improvements at Pavillion Park and Rocky Hill Park
Background: With park use increasing significantly over the past year, the city is turning its attention to greenspace improvements that go beyond mowing lawns and pruning trees. Upgrades at Pavillion Park - now 20 years old - would include lighting, a permanent concession facility, improved drainage and landscaping. At Rocky Hill Park, the main project would involve structurally securing a vintage barn. The renovated building would be used for equipment storage. An engineering class at the Spokane Valley campus of ITT Technical Institute is working on a conceptual design for the barn.
Timeline: Projects to be addressed in spring, summer and fall of 2014. Some of the work would be done in-house.
Price tag: $265,000 for Pavillion Park; $85,000 for the barn renovation at Rocky Hill Park and another $20,000 for signage and additional community garden plots.
City Hall chatter:
"The projects that we have here, they're not one big, mass project - they're in their own little silos." - Mayor Peterson
"The city is growing, and we are increasing the areas that need maintenance." - Council Member Kopelson
"Needed infrastructure maintenance, something that will impact future parks and ball fields." - Council Member Langford
4. Fallen Heroes Circuit Course at Pavillion Park
Background: The first installment of this outdoor exercise course premiered at Rocky Hill Park this year and features a salute to the Marines. The next project will honor the Air Force. Former Marine and current Liberty Lake resident Bob Wiese is the catalyst of a Fallen Heroes committee that will address the logistics and some of the fundraising related to the Pavillion Park installment.
Timeline: Construction would start sometime in March with completion by the end of May.
Price tag: City Council has already set aside $35,000 for this project. The remainder of the $39,432 cost will be raised by the Fallen Heroes community committee.
City Hall chatter:
"Great project - looking forward to another great partnership with the community committee." - Council Member Kaminskas
"I believe these Fallen Hero projects are very important and play an important role in honoring our armed services heroes and providing an excellent community venue to keep or get in good physical shape." - Council Member Kopelson
"Fallen Heroes honors those who have sacrificed so we can have the freedoms in our communities." - Mayor Peterson
5. Design work for improvements on Appleway Avenue and Liberty Lake Road
Background: While no street capital projects are scheduled for 2014, the city is hoping to get the ball rolling on future upgrades for two of the most traveled roads in town. In addition to a new layer of asphalt on each surface, the work on Appleway would also address pedestrian safety and lighting.
Timeline: The conceptual work for both projects would be completed next year. With council approval and sufficient funding, construction could begin in 2015. The cost-effective blend of renovating two major roads concurrently would follow in the footsteps of Valleyway and Mission this year. On the money side, the city received good news from the Transportation Improvement Board on Nov. 22 as a grant for $1,321,742 was awarded for Appleway improvements. Overall cost of the project is $2,162,000.
Price tag: The blueprint phase for these two projects totals $214,000, with Appleway checking in at $164,000 and Liberty Lake Road running $50,000.
City Hall chatter:
"These roads need to be addressed sooner rather than later." - Council Member Beckett
"On Appleway, we want to look at safety improvements for both motorists and pedestrians. That would include lighting, channelization - those kinds of things." - City Administrator Allen
"As long as this is for maintenance and improved traffic flow, not a redesign, it's overdue." - Council Member Kaminskas
6. Equipment purchases, upgrades at Trailhead Golf Course
Background: Purchased a year after the city incorporated in 2001, Trailhead at Liberty Lake has emerged as a top-flight executive golf course and an increasingly profitable city resource. "We had a very, very good year at Trailhead," said Allen, when describing annual revenue that has gone from $165,000 in the venue's first year under the city to around $500,000 in 2013. Plans for next year include raising the tee boxes on the grassy area of the driving range, upgrades to fencing and bringing in a new fleet of golf carts as well as an aerator and fairway mower.
Timeline: Most of the improvements will be made in the spring with some of the driving range renovation taking place earlier.
Price tag: The total for Trailhead is $150,000, with golf carts ($55,000) topping the list. A new mower ($45,000), aerator ($25,000) and fencing ($10,000) round out the bill.
City Hall chatter:
"We need to keep it maintained and updated to serve its customers. We want our customers to stay and use the facility as well as attracting new customers." - Council Member Kopelson
"Trailhead continues to be a significant draw to our city and it's important that we maintain the course that so many people travel to Liberty Lake to enjoy." - Council Member Beckett
"OK, if kept within reason." - Council Member Langford
7. Retirement of the debt for City Hall property
Background: Next June will be the first opportunity for the city to pay off the existing bond for City Hall without paying the full interest. Municipal employees have called the 7,600-square-foot building home since October 2004. At the end of 2012, a budget amendment set aside the necessary funds to retire the bond.
Price tag: A $674,000 payment in 2014 will mean the city saving $73,000 in interest.
City Hall chatter:
"The nice thing is that we won't have a payment on City Hall anymore, and it stays in the community." - Mayor Peterson
"If we have the ability to eliminate debt, I think it important that we take advantage of that." - Council Member Kopelson
"Looking forward to calling Dave Ramsey one day to say that the city of Liberty Lake is debt free." - Council Member Kaminskas
8. Addition of half-a-dozen parks maintenance workers, bringing the total to 20
Background: Another investment in the city's "Three T" theme of trees, turf and trails. The increase in staff will also help address the care required at the Harvard Road roundabout and two new baseball fields.
Timeline: Hiring will be staggered and hinge on the weather and corresponding maintenance requirements.
Price tag: Approximately $100,000
City Hall chatter:
"If they are seasonal employees only. Obviously, new projects require additional maintenance, labor and equipment, which needs to be included in overall costs." - Council Member Langford
"If this is what is needed to keep our greenspace well-maintained, then I support it." - Council Member Kaminskas
"We can't just maintain our parks, we want to make them better." - Mayor Peterson
9. Reading Garden at Liberty Lake Library
Background: After the addition of an entryway at the library this year, the construction of a Reading Garden would continue to transform a venue that once stood as a warehouse. The garden would be built on the north side of the entry area near the front of the building and include a mix of stone, concrete and vegetation.
Timeline: Construction would likely begin in May or June with a 30- to 40-day timeline.
Price tag: The city and Liberty Lake Library Foundation would share the $31,000 cost.
City Hall chatter:
"We have invested a substantial amount of money in the library, and it has been well utilized. The patron counts continue to increase and more space is needed." - Council Member Kopelson
"The library continues to evolve and to offer more and more services to our community, and this garden will provide a nice addition to our library." - Council Member Beckett
"From the Foundation's standpoint, there has been talk about an area where people could enjoy sitting outside and reading. I'm a proponent of anything to do with the library." - Mayor Peterson
10. Pay raises for the mayor and City Council
Background: Compensation for both mayor and City Council has remained unchanged since Liberty Lake incorporated in 2001 with both levels currently trailing most similarly populated cities in Washington. An independent, three-member salary commission concluded this fall that the mayor's salary should be increased from $750 to $1,250 per month while pay for representatives of City Council should go from $250 to $400 a month.
Timeline: By state law, the recommendation of a salary commission is automatically included in the budget and cannot be voted on by council. Pay increases will take effect in January.
Price tag: Taken over 12 months, the pay raises will translate to an additional $12,600 per year on the council side and $6,000 for the mayor, totaling $18,600 for 2014.
City Hall chatter:
"No opinion - when I first applied and interviewed for a council position in 2009, I didn't know there was any pay." - Council Member Kaminskas
"It's time. We are expanding and the time requirements for elected officials are more demanding." - Council Member Langford
"The independent committee gave the issue careful consideration prior to their recommendation, which appears to be modest and in line with similar sized cities." - Council Member Kopelson
Other Council opinion?
Council members Dan Dunne and Shane Brickner did not respond to requests for comment regarding this story. Council Member Lori Olander sent thoughts in writing on the entire 2014 budget as opposed to discussing the specific projects in the following statement:
"I find it interesting that the amount of utility tax we collect ($660,000) is about the amount we are now talking about spending on new projects and increased staffing. So, yes we are spending the utility tax on street maintenance, but what we are really doing is freeing up that huge amount of money so we can spend it on other projects. I cannot support that amount of spending. We can easily find enough money in the budget to decrease the utility tax at least by 25 percent. I have suggested dropping gas and electric from 3 percent to 1.5 percent. That would benefit both businesses and residents and bring us closer to the amount charged in Spokane Valley."