Council revisits, approves contract for ball fields
By Craig Howard
On a night when voters weighed in on an array of candidates and initiatives, the Liberty Lake City Council cleared the way for a capital project on a revived ballot.
By a vote of 5-2 on Nov. 5, the governing board approved the base contract for phase one of the Liberty Lake Ball Fields, one week after a split vote had cast an uncertain light on the future of the project. The decision - on the eve of a general election - took up the bulk of a short meeting and included a green light from council on a trio of add-ons that will set aside a total of $794,258.51 for two baseball diamonds, a parking lot and paved walking path.
Council Member Shane Brickner - who joined Dan Dunne and Cris Kaminskas in voting for the project on Oct. 29 - expressed disappointment in council's stonewalling of the contract a week earlier. Brickner noted that the city has already spent over $71,000 on the design portion of the fields.
"This just scratches the surface on what we need for sports fields," Brickner said.
Keith Kopelson and Lori Olander joined the majority in approving the contract to KRCI, LLC. Beckett and Langford were in the minority.
Along with awarding the base bid in the amount of $707,223.94, council approved an expenditure of $37,055.83 for a concrete sidewalk leading to the diamonds as well as $11,978.74 for a warning track that will line the perimeter of the outfield fence on the larger of the two fields. A contingency of $38,000 for unexpected project expenses during construction was also approved on Nov. 5.
"Let's go forth and build the best field we can build," said Langford, who eventually joined the majority in voting for the sidewalk, warning track and contingency.
Beckett, who chimed in by phone on Nov. 5, continued the argument at that meeting by warning that construction of the fields could present "an extra obstacle" in CVSD's efforts to have funds approved for a new school in Liberty Lake. He added that soccer, not baseball, should be the priority in budgeting for local sports facilities.
Olander voiced her support for the contract on Nov. 5, saying any lingering concerns she had about CVSD not being on board with the project had been alleviated.
"We need both of these fields and more," Olander said.
Council's decision on Nov. 5 also included a budget amendment that will set aside the necessary funds for the sports fields in the 2014 budget. The money will come from revenue generated through the city's real estate excise tax.
The first council agenda in November also included a presentation by Finance Director RJ Stevenson and a brief public workshop on next year's budget. Stevenson noted that the city will launch 2014 with $7,918,843 in starting cash. Figuring in overall revenues and expenditures - including the cost of the sports fields, townsquare park ($655,000) and paying off the City Hall bond ($677,915) - the city's ending fund balance is estimated at $5,547,793.
Property tax, utility tax decisions made Nov. 19
At the Nov. 19 council meeting, the governing board bypassed a funding source for the 2014 budget while looking ahead at the opportunity to increase revenue capacity for a rainy day.
Resolution 13-177 included a healthy discussion over the merits of raising the property tax rate in the city by the margin allowed each year of 1 percent. By the time the debate ended, Beckett, Kaminskas and Olander had voted against the tax hike. Langford and Brickner were in the opposition. Dunne and Kopelson missed the meeting with excused absences.
The 1 percent change would have meant a $3.50 annual increase on a home valued at $200,000 and generated just under $20,000 in 2014 for city coffers. Leaving the rate the same means the city can stow away the capacity and utilize it at future date.
Beckett, who led the charge against the tax tack-on said the city is now funding enough "warm and fuzzy projects and should bank the 1 percent capacity for when we need it."
Overall property tax revenue accounts for $1.88 million annually and comprises 39 percent of the municipal budget.
Langford characterized the vote against the 1 percent shift as little more than window dressing.
"To me, it seems disingenuous," he said. "On one hand, we're spending millions of dollars, on the other hand we're saying We're going to save you 30 cents a month.'"
The Nov. 19 meeting featured another conversation about taxes that also ended with a vote for the status quo.
Olander, who has been one of most active critics of the utility tax, raised a motion on Tuesday to decrease the rate for gas and electricity from 3 percent to 1.5 percent. At the council retreat in August, Olander and Beckett voted against maintaining the utility tax revenue at $660,000 for 2014. Kaminskas abstained from that vote while Langford, Dunne, Kopelson and Brickner cast their support for keeping the revenue intact.
"I cannot honestly tell people that we've done all we can to reduce the utility tax," Olander said on Nov. 19.
In her case to lower the rate for gas and electricity, Olander said the city should be able to procure $250,000 from a pair of funds generated through the real estate excise tax to make up for any shortfall. After Beckett gave his second to the motion, Olander asked to remove her motion in order for the city to go over the numbers and return with a budget reflecting the drop in utility tax revenue.
Langford then brought an abrupt halt to the proceedings by arguing that a motion could not be retracted after it has been seconded.
"This conversation is getting old, let's move on," Langford said.
With the motion and second on the floor, the vote to change the rate failed by a count of 3-2 with Olander and Beckett in the minority.
Unlike other meetings involving the utility tax, not a single representative from the local business community spoke out against tax on Tuesday. Also absent from the discussion was the Greater Spokane Valley Chamber of Commerce utility tax task force, a group that campaigned ambitiously against the tax after it was first installed.
The Nov. 19 public hearing on the 2014 budget included comments from Thomas McLaughlin, a 30-year resident, who urged council to consider countdown signal lights at city intersections. The lights - utilized widely in downtown Spokane - provide motorists and pedestrians with an illuminated countdown prior to a traffic light turning yellow. McLaughlin said Spokane officials had mentioned a price tag of $90,000 for such lights at 16 intersections.
"I've seen enough accidents on Country Vista," McLaughlin said in his appeal for the devices.
McLaughlin also recommended the city look into the possibility of vintage street lights on Liberty Lake Road similar to those found in Hillyard and Coeur d'Alene. The antique-styled lamp posts could also include promotional banners advertising community events like the Spokane Symphony in Pavillion Park, McLaughlin said.
Allen said the city would like to pursue additional street lighting on roads like Appleway and Mission as well as solar powered pedestrian crossings at various intersections around town. City officials will meet with representatives of Vivint Inc. on Dec. 2 to address the company's concerns about improving safety for pedestrians crossing Appleway near Vivint headquarters.
Allen referred to a flashing, illuminated pedestrian crossing near Gonzaga University that she said has drastically improved conditions for those on foot and bike.
"We're talking especially about crosswalks at unsignaled intersections," Allen said. "If something like that works on Hamilton, I think it would work here."
On the money side, street lights run around $1,500 each with a corresponding $20 monthly energy bill. An order of 50 lights would run the city $75,000 with a $20,000 annual energy bill. Municipal officials will be talking to representatives of the city of Spokane about the cost and installation of the pedestrian lighting.