City readies for big cuts
July 3, 2008 · Updated 1:10 PM
"Judging from a budget workshop between the Oak Harbor City Council and department heads Monday night, employee lay-offs seem just around the corner.That is, unless councilors and city administrators can find creative ways to juggle expenses and cut non-core programs to make up for a $500,000 deficit. That could mean things like abandoning city wading pools and the swimming lagoon, canceling plans to build an adult day care building next to the senior center, cutting the Explorers program and Citizens On Patrol, and putting off vehicle replacement.And it could get worse: The deficit could more than double if Initiative 722 is upheld in court.Interim City Supervisor Doug Merriman said that the necessary $500,000 in cuts comes from last year's Initiative 695. Although it was recently ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court, its passage pushed the Legislature to abandon the hefty car tab tax last year. Since the car tab money funded sales tax equalization, the city lost about $800,000. The Legislature is expected to give the city about $280,000 next year to soften this blow, but that still leaves the city over $500,000 in the red.Merriman said the Association of Washington Cities has advised the city to ignore I-722 in budgeting for next year, since it will likely be ruled unconstitutional. Yet if it is upheld, the city will have to give back about $500,000 in utility and property taxes to taxpayers. Mayor Patty Cohen asked the department heads to identify untouchable core services in their departments and to suggest any possible cuts in non-core services. The department heads presented their proposals to the council Monday, but their suggestions for cuts came nowhere near the $500,000 mark.Public Works Director Cathy Rosen suggested closing the city wading pools and the swimming lagoon at a savings of about $22,000. Senior Center Director Bridget DeMuth suggested requiring Senior Services of Island County - a non-profit organization that provides meals for seniors - to pay for the use of the Senior Center kitchen, but she didn't suggest a specific fee.Police Chief Tony Barge was criticized by Councilman Richard Davis because he listed everything his department does as a core service - including things like the DARE program, Citizens On Patrol, the Explorer Post and National Night Out. Barge suggested losing the police dog, abandoning bike patrols and getting rid of officers' cellular phones - which means going back to relying on the radio - are possibilities.Cohen said that many of the police programs that are mainly public relations will probably have to go. That may include things like DARE, crime prevention presentations in the community, National Night Out, bike patrols, the police reserves program, the Explorer Post, Neutral Zone security, Citizens On Patrol and possibly even SWAT team training. Cohen also suggested that the senior center abandon or put off plans to expand the adult respite program to eight hours a day, five days a week and purchase a manufactured building to use for the program. The city isn't paying anything to buy the building, but the city would have to pay for part of the operation and maintenance - plus forgiving up-front costs for the building project in planning and engineering.A couple of council members also suggested decreasing the city's contribution to the senior center. The senior center and its programs are funded in equal parts by the city, county and by the seniors themselves. Davis said the senior center should increase its fees to members since those fees haven't changed since the center opened.DeMuth, however, said that if the city decreased funding then the county would likely follow suit. She said the seniors couldn't possibly make up the slack through increased fees.Beyond police, public works and the senior center, there doesn't seem to be any rooms for cuts in the general fund. The five other departments heads painted a dismal picture of their current funding situation and said there is absolutely no room for cuts. In fact, a couple of departments asked for increased staff.We're cut to the minimum right now, Fire Chief Mark Soptich said, adding that the department is five positions below its goal. More than one-third of the department consists of paid on-call positions, which are volunteers who earn a very small sum for responding to calls.No one else is doing what we do with so few, he said.In addition, department heads for planning, engineering, finance and legal services said any cuts would mean their departments wouldn't be able to perform the tasks mandated by government.After the workshop, the council members and administration went into a closed executive session to discuss the possibility of lawsuits resulting from personnel cuts.Anytime you deal with cutting people, you have the potential for litigation, City Attorney Phil Bleyhl said before the meeting. "