LL Ball Field, utility tax headline Council’s February
By Craig Howard
Jennifer Tomlinson can tell you that the search for diamonds in Liberty Lake has resulted in a futile quarry until now.
At the Feb. 19 meeting of the Liberty Lake City Council, the longtime advocate for a local outdoor sports venue was one of the bearers of encouraging news regarding the city's plans for a 22-acre tract of property purchased from the Central Valley School District in November. Tomlinson is part of a committee that includes City Administrator Katy Allen, several members of the City Council and a cadre of residents, all dedicated to developing the Liberty Lake Ball Field into a community hub.
Allen provided the governing board with an update on the committee's progress since their first meeting last month, outlining a design proposal that would include four baseball diamonds, a multipurpose field and a parking area. Allen said the committee has discussed placing baseball as a priority at the site in order to free up space at other parks where the sport is currently played.
Allen also made it clear that nothing is set in stone.
"We, as a committee, are not making any recommendations right now," she said. "This is just what has been discussed."
Allen said a recent tour of Dwight Merkel Sports Complex in northwest Spokane provided the committee with some helpful insight on the potential of an outdoor athletic venue. The $11 million, 126-acre site opened in 2010 and features softball diamonds, soccer fields and a BMX track.
"Whatever we end up doing, we need to pay cash as we go," said Council Member Josh Beckett. "I think we've already shown good faith with the $500,000 for this year."
Tomlinson said it would be critical for the city to keep the field as a priority, especially in light of the time it has taken to bring the project to fruition. She added that an outreach effort targeting the residential area around the field should also be on the agenda.
"I can anticipate the people living near the field will have some form of negative comment," she said "We need to be proactive about that."
Mayor Steve Peterson recommended that a flyer indicating plans for the field be distributed to residents and posted at the library.
Meanwhile, committee member Kevin Stocker, a former professional baseball player, said there is still information to be gathered on how the field can sustain itself on some level.
"We haven't really looked at how the fields will make money," he said. "There's a lot of research that needs to be done in that area."
In news surrounding another proposed greenspace, council approved an agreement with Welch Comer Engineers to complete a topographic study that will pave the way for the design of a new trail along Sprague Avenue. Council members also voted in favor of a master agreement with Welch Comer for engineering and surveying services from 2013-2015. Allen said over 40 companies applied to the city following a statewide search. The list was narrowed to eight firms who were interviewed by a committee leading up to the recommendation of Welch Comer.
Beckett and Council Member Keith Kopelson both raised concerns about the master agreement, pointing to potential scenarios in which municipal projects would not be part of a competitive bid process.
"It seems like we're trying to bypass something," Kopelson said. "So we approve a master agreement, they give us a price and then we vote for it. There doesn't seem to be any negotiating process."
Allen countered by referring to state law mandating that engineering services "need to be selected based on qualifications, not price." She added that City Engineer Andrew Staples had closely evaluated Welch Comer's estimate on the topographic work and the cost of $11,000 - in the context of an overall project pricetag of $263,000 - appeared to be "a very reasonable fee."
"I appreciate that we want to get the best price for our residents, but as we work with architects and engineers, I don't know that we would get a lower rate from another firm," Allen said.
City Attorney Sean Boutz indicated that the master agreement includes "specific provisions in the contract that makes it a non-exclusive agreement," meaning the city could still negotiate with other engineering firms.
Beckett was the only council vote against the master agreement with Welch Comer and the contract for the topographic study. Kopelson abstained from both votes.
When it came to the decision on a new official city newspaper, the entire council sat in stony silence as the vote for the Spokane Valley News Herald was called. City staff's recommendation to go with the weekly paper as the publisher of legal ads - based on a price of 85 cents per line versus $1.57 charged by the Spokesman Review - drew zero support after the Herald's circulation in Liberty Lake was announced. The paper has eight subscribers within city limits and no distribution racks at local retail sites.
By state law, the city must publish its legal notices in a publication that is distributed on the minimum of a weekly basis. The city's longtime legal publication, The Splash, announced in January that it would begin publishing monthly, beginning with a February issue.
Despite the cost savings of latching on with the Herald, Beckett said the city should think twice.
"If we're trying to be transparent, it doesn't make sense to publish in a paper that residents don't have access to," he said.
A revamped resolution recommending the Spokesman-Review as the official city newspaper will appear on the March 5 council agenda.
Cafeteria approach to utility tax presented Feb. 5
Finance Director R.J. Stevenson presented the governing board with a hypothetical shift to the embattled tax at the Feb. 5 council meeting, an adjustment that would still raise a substantial amount of revenue to address city streets while moving the heavier burden away from electric and gas and toward utilities like phone and cable.
Currently, the toll on phone, cable, gas, electric and waste management in Liberty Lake is set at 3 percent, a figure established in late 2011 when the City Council voted to reduce the original rate of 6 percent approved in October 2010. Stevenson's scenario would keep waste management at 3 percent while raising phone and cable to 5 percent and dropping gas and electric to 2 percent.
If implemented, the transition would appear to represent a compromise for local businesses like Huntwood Custom Cabinets that have lobbied for the removal of the tax, or at a minimum, a lighter lien on power usage essential to manufacturing. The municipal tax on gas and electric alone is expected to generate $415,000 toward city coffers this year.
In response to concern from Council Member Lori Olander that the cafeteria option merely shifted the numbers and did not address the pressing issue of reducing or eliminating the utility tax, City Administrator Katy Allen said municipal staff was still trying to determine the amount of revenue necessary to maintain city streets. As part of the budget process for 2013, it was determined that all funds generated by the tax would be dedicated to road preservation.
"We need to take a long-term approach to our streets," Allen said. "What we'd like to do is bring back to council what we'll need to take care of our roads and how to pay for that."
While Allen brought up June as a possible timeline for the completion of a street preservation plan, Council Member Josh Beckett said such information was long overdue.
"All this should have been done before we passed a budget," Beckett said. "I don't want to keep workshopping this. We need to reach a resolution on what we're going to do with the utility tax."
In maintaining her stance on the potential expendability of the tax, Olander pointed out that the city "had excess funds from last year" that are now going toward expenditures such as paying off the bond for City Hall.
"I think the big question is ‘Do we need to charge $664,000 a year in utility tax?'" Olander said. "This is a tax that was supposed to be temporary."
Stevenson said that while revenue was slightly above projections for last year, the economic forecast "still indicates there needs to be another revenue source to pay for streets."
Allen and Mayor Steve Peterson both pointed to roads such as Mission, Valleyway and Appleway that are in need of extensive upgrades. Funds from the utility tax also pay for snow and ice removal as well as regular maintenance like patching potholes.
Some residents, like Bob Moore, who serves on the Liberty Lake Planning Commission, take issue with the utility tax being included in the city's financial strategy at all. Moore reminded council members on Tuesday that the idea to place a levy on utilities originated because of a projected $700,000 deficit in the budget leading up to 2011.
"The utility tax was never meant to be a perpetual tax," said Moore during the public comments segment near the end of Tuesday's meeting. "Now it's become a regular source of revenue and the city has figured out a way to spend it."
Another resident, retired civil engineer Dennis Scott, said the city would be wise to look after its roads.
"Don't put off the care of your roads," Scott said. "All you need to do is go downtown and see what happens when you ignore your streets."
When the city projected the numbers without the utility tax last year, the street fund revealed a deficit by 2015. Council Member Shane Brickner said talk about a shift in the rate among utilities represented "a step in the right direction" while adding that more details on the cost for street upkeep would sharpen the council's focus on the future of the utility tax.
"Until we get those true numbers on the streets, we aren't going to know what we're dealing with," Brickner said.
Meanwhile, the most anticipated topic of the Feb. 5 meeting - a vote on an ordinance that would have restored the placement of political signs in the public right-of-way - resulted in a unanimous decision opposing a recommendation by the planning commission from last year. A 6-0 vote against Ordinance 205 means the policy will remain as it was for the last election season - no campaign signage on city-owned property within the right-of-way or public easement.