Tonasket City Council weighs budget choices in tough economy

TONASKET – The Tonasket City Council laid the final groundwork for the 2012 budget in its Tuesday, Nov. 22, meeting.

Tuesday’s meeting included the final hearing on the 2012 budget and consisted primarily of recommendations made by finance committee Jill Vugteveen and Scott Olson.

“I really appreciate all the conversation we’ve had, regardless of how it comes out,” Councilman Olson said. “I’ve been comfortable with what’s been said and how we’ve talked it out. I like that (City Clerk) Alice (Attwood) has listened to us and tried hard to meet different philosophies, not just money. Though it’s been difficult at times I’ve come away feeling lot better about it.”

In the end, the council as a whole accepted the finance committee’s recommendations, which will be used to build the actual 2012 budget. Those recommendations included:

- Reducing hotel / motel funds from the 2011 budgeted amount of $13,000 to $9000 for 2012. Funding goes to Tonasket Airport improvement, the Tonasket Rodeo Club, the Community Cultural Center’s Garlic Festival, the North Country Car Club, the Tonasket Chamber of Commerce, the TVBRC, promotion of the Northwest Aviation Conference and the Coulee Corridor publication (all of which would receive a 20 to 50 percent budget cut from 2011);

- Withholding an additional $59.94 per employee per month to help pay for rapidly rising health insurance premiums;

- Declining to give a three percent cost of living adjustment to city employees;

- Agreeing to purchase paint for the City Hall building, which would likely need to be applied by volunteers;

- Agreeing to include funds for City Hall roof repairs;

- Reiterating previously approved use of water/sewer utility billing funds that are on hand;

- Agreeing to a proposal to borrow approximately $28,000 from reserve funds to build a three-vehicle bay (money allocated to rebuild the reserve fund would be used to repay the loan);

- Declining to provide funding for the purchase of a new pickup truck for Public Works;

- Declining to authorize funding for a fifth full-time Public Works position from May 1 to Sept. 30, with the recommendation to look for a student to pick up some of the part-time hours needed for services such as mowing;

- Declining to provide funding for new desktop and/or laptop computers for the police department;

- Declining for now to spend $5,000 for a new police car. Attwood pointed out that there should be rural development grant and/or loan money available for such a purchase and might be able to purchase a more reliable vehicle than $5,000 would. Council would review this request in six months once it becomes known how much in grant or loan funds the department will receive;

- Declining to provide funding for a fifth police officer;

- Declining to fund a three percent raise for full-time police department employees;

- Approving pay scales for the reserve police sergeant and fill-in officers.

Councilmember Jean Ramsey asked if there had been additional discussions with city employees about agreeing to pay more out-of-pocket for insurance premiums or accepting a higher deductible plan.

“We did,” Plumb said, “It was pretty apparent to me that that would be a ‘no deal.’ The discussion was had, but the discussion wasn’t fruitful.”

Plumb said that by comparison, Connell (population of just over 5,000) had negotiated through the union to have their employees pay five percent toward medical insurance.

Ramsey also expressed concerns about what was communicated to the public about savings promised from the closing of the Tonasket Swimming Pool as opposed to what has actually occurred.

“I feel like we told the public we would save $40,000 by shutting down the pool, and we’ve only got $25,000 in savings in the budget,” she said.

“The $25,000 is what we save, not money we would not spend,” Olson said. “We would have paid out $37,000 to run the pool, but we would have taken in $8,000 in revenue (if it had been open). So the net there would be $29,000, which isn’t that far off. The point was that we would set aside the money that we were not spending on the pool, and not a specific dollar amount.”

The council also expressed skepticism that the budget situation would improve in the next few years, given the sluggish economy, rising costs and the condition of state and federal budgets.

“I know I’m a henny-penny when it comes to the economy,” Ramsey said. “I’m always predicting the worst with the economy; I’m negative that way. I honestly don’t see this getting any better next year. I’m sitting here thinking, another 11 to 12 percent insurance increase, (city employees will) go another year without a raise. We can’t keep doing this and taking away from the maintenance and actual art of running the city. How are we going to maintain that?”

“We need to be honest about the costs of doing it,” Olson said. “As we look to the future we need to get the message across that if we want to run a city that has these services, we need to pay for them. I think the bottom line is that people are willing to pay for these services, even if they don’t like to.”

Olson suggested, as one portion of getting information to the pubic, adding a statement on residents’ water and sewer bills that would estimate each household’s contribution to funding the water and sewer projects as well as how much was received in grants to help keep residents’ costs as low as possible.

“I respect Scott’s comments about how we’re juggling competing priorities,” Griffin said. “We don’t even necessarily agree on our priorities, but we agree that there are too many good things that need funding, and we don’t have the funds…. This is the most in-depth we’ve ever gone into unpaid meetings to really try to understand every bit of this. I don’t think I’ve ever sat at this counter with people that are more passionate about doing the right thing for our neighbors and our city.”

“I’ve always respected Jean for her penny sense,” Vugteveen said. “I tend to be very conservative with spending money. But we do have to consider being fiscally responsible to the city as well as to our citizens. At some point there has to be some ‘give.’

“When I see our infrastructure like leaking buildings, vehicles that are run down more so than anyone should have to deal with, replacement costs in equipment that we need to service our the citizens of our community, it’s hard to ignore. At some point we have to provide there as well as consider the low and fixed incomes in this community. I agree with Scott, that people will understand they have to pay at some point… I feel if we do that responsibly and ease (fees) up instead of make a huge jump all at once, the citizens will be more able to accommodate and accept it. We all recognize that we’re facing tough times, and I respect Scott for that too.”

“We really are asking the staff to make some sacrifices,” Olson said. “They are not getting a COLA, but their costs are rising like everyone else’s. Water and sewer rates are going up, for instance, so what we’re paying them seems like less.”

The council voted 4-1 in favor of accepting the finance committee’s recommendations. Vugteveen, Olsen, Hines and Griffin voted in favor, with Ramsey against.

The council hopes to pass the budget at the Dec. 13 meeting.

About Brent Baker

Brent is a reporter for the Gazette-Tribune. Prior to working at the G-T, he was the sports editor for Sunrise Publishing from 2000-2005 in Michigan. He subsequently owned and operated Buckland Media, a high school sports website, in Michigan until 2010. He and his wife Kim, who have an adult son, moved to Tonasket in 2010. Brent started work at the G-T in 2011.

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