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Mayor introduces preliminary budget for 2016
10/22/2015 2:34:21 PM

By Craig Howard
Splash Contributor

As mayor of Liberty Lake for a good portion of its existence, Steve Peterson is accustomed to compiling a preliminary budget for the upcoming year. 

While the numbers may have shifted and grown since 2001, the theme of Liberty Lake as "Spokane County's premier address" has remained in the mayor's parlance, along with his emphasis on keeping the city "safe, clean and green." At Tuesday night's City Council meeting, Peterson discussed a different kind of green, mapping out his financial priorities for next year.

"The 2016 budget contains conservative revenue projections and disciplined expenditures," Peterson told council on Oct. 20. "Our commitment to being a safe, clean and green community with excellent facilities and infrastructure has not wavered."

Pointing to Liberty Lake's status as the sixth-fastest growing city in Washington, the mayor said "it is imperative that we be ahead of the power curve on transportation." 

"In the coming years, it will fall upon the city to provide more resources for (road) construction than in the past," Peterson continued.

Next year's budget features several large-scale street projects including a renovation of Liberty Lake Road. The work will encompass surface and signalization improvements at the intersection of the heavily traveled road and Country Vista. There are also plans for new signalization at the junction of Appleway and Liberty Lake Road to improve traffic flow.

Street upgrades in 2016 will take up just over $2.2 million of the $2.8 million allotted under the Capital Improvement Plan. The balance will go toward projects at city parks, Trailhead Golf Course, Town Square and community signage. Peterson noted that "a little over $500,000 is yet to be determined but is expected as additional funding."

The mayor referred to the transition in the Parks and Recreation Department after longtime director Michelle Griffin was given a layoff notice in September. Peterson said the objective is "to expand our parks department as it acquires new responsibility with our list of completed capital projects and the decentralization of recreation programming services led by our community partners who use our facilities." 

Other priorities in 2016 include installing additional pedestrian crossings and speed controls, maximizing savings at City Hall by identifying work and benefit efficiencies and hiring a new full-time maintenance worker as well as three seasonal workers.

The proposed general fund for 2016 – covering municipal pillars like public safety, library services, parks, community development and seven other programs – stands at nearly $6.58 million, up from $6.05 million in 2015. Adding in another 17 funds, in areas like streets, tourism promotion and stormwater utility, the grand total for next year rings in at nearly $11.6 million, eclipsing the $11.2 million budget for 2015. 

Peterson attributed the budget growth to the inclusion of funds from the new waste management contract, a proposed 1 percent hike in the property tax levy that the city has the option to install each year, increased property valuation and an upturn in revenue from the utility tax.

"These funds will help sustain us in the future as we see our costs increase by approximately 2 percent," Peterson said.

Even with a 1 percent increase, Liberty Lake's property tax rate of $1.74 per $1,000 of assessed value would remain significantly lower than neighboring cities like Spokane Valley, Millwood and Spokane.  The breakdown of next year's proposed operating revenue of $6.4 million includes a projected $2.3 million from sales tax and $2.05 million in property tax. Utility tax – the toll on phone, electric, gas, cable and waste management – is expected to bring in $745,000. The tax was installed in 2010 at 6 percent and lowered to 3 percent in 2012. In 2013, revenue from the utility tax was dedicated exclusively to road maintenance. 

Public safety will take up 25 percent – or $1.9 million – of proposed expenditures next year, followed by capital projects at just under $1.2 million. Streets come in third at nearly $920,000. 

Finance Director RJ Stevenson said the city is expected to begin 2016 with a fund balance of nearly $6.2 million. With overall revenues projected at $10.5 million and expenditures targeted at $11.6 million, the city anticipates an ending fund balance next year of $5.1 million. 

Reflecting on this year's financial game plan, Peterson emphasized that revenues tracked ahead of projections while expenditures remained within budget. The city was able to reduce its debt and complete a major upgrade to Appleway Avenue with the help of state matching funds. 

Looking ahead to 2016, the city is considering a fee change at Liberty Lake Ballfields that would be in line with similar facilities in the area. A change in the rate to use Pavillion Park is also being proposed. Previously, groups of 200 or more were charged $250 while the transition would mean the same fee for gatherings of 100 or more. 

Also on the table for next year is a set schedule for street cleaning that would sweep arterials once a month and residential roads twice a year. A code enforcement initiative has already been approved by council for 2016, with a goal of addressing properties with chronic disturbance issues.

The city will debut an "Engage Liberty Lake" feature on the municipal website next year which Peterson said will build upon "the success we have had with previous surveys." As the budget process ramps up, citizens are once again invited to send in their "mayor budget questions" along with inquiries from the City Council.

All questions and comments regarding the budget are due by Nov. 25. Council is expected to conduct a first read of the budget ordinance on Dec. 1 with a second read and passage anticipated on Dec. 15.

"This is a line-by-line budget that is easy to understand," Peterson said. "We want your feedback as we move forward with this process."

In other city news:

• The Liberty Lake Police Department will host the fifth annual Community Domestic Violence Symposium this Saturday (Oct. 24) from 9 a.m. to noon. The free event will include presentations by Kami Schiller, YWCA legal advocate and community outreach educator, Andy Stockman of the Spokane County Sheriff's Department and Liberty Lake Police Chief Brian Asmus. The symposium will be at LLPD headquarters, 23127 E. Mission Ave., and will include a catered lunch. For more information, call Sakti Hiatt at 755-1140. The YWCA 24-hour domestic violence helpline can be reached at 326-2255. 

• City Administrator Katy Allen said the city is looking at "a systems analysis" of traffic patterns along major arterials of Country Vista, Mission and Appleway that would include an evaluation of properties that are vacant and underutilized. Allen said the research would compile "numbers at buildout" that would help the city determine the need for transportation upgrades. 

• At the beginning of Tuesday's meeting, during the citizen comments portion, a letter was read into the public record from resident Tricia Usab that referred to the city's decision to lay off longtime Parks and Recreation Director Michelle Griffin in September. Usab expressed concern that the city would be offering fewer recreational opportunities due to Griffin's departure.

• An electronic speed tracking sign has been installed near Rocky Hill Park as a reminder to motorists of the posted speed limit. Illuminated pedestrian beacons will be added near Liberty Lake Elementary and the intersection of Mission and Malvern in the next two weeks.

• The city has received three applications for the planning commission position once occupied by Mike Kennedy.

• Peterson presented Gregg Dohrn with a plaque of recognition for his work helping staff and City Council consolidate and update the comprehensive plan. The mayor noted that Dohrn's support was integral to the city completing the process before any other jurisdiction in Spokane County. 

• The next City Council meeting is scheduled for 7 p.m. Nov. 3.

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