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Mayor paints bleak picture of city's future

"Oak Harbor Mayor Patty Cohen laid out the serious financial challenges city government faces and hinted at some of the changes in store.As in previous speeches, Cohen in her state-of-the-city address at the Oak Harbor Chamber of Commerce luncheon Thursday focused on the city's ongoing financial troubles. She called on community leaders to support economic development efforts. Cohen, who has been mayor for a year and a half, spoke about the ongoing negative effects of state voter initiatives as well as upcoming demands on the city budget.Our budget process this past year was a difficult journey for both the council and me, she said. I can honestly share with you that for the first time, pure economics drove development of the city budget this year as opposed to community and organizational needs.The budget trouble, Cohen said, began when voters passed Initiative 695, which meant a loss of about $850,000 of state money to the city. I-695's voter approval last year led to a $30 flat motor-vehicle license tab fee and restricted some state spending.As a result, Cohen said she had to order lay-offs and downsizing for the first time in the city's history.The future doesn't look so bright. Cohen said the Oak Harbor Fire Department voted to unionize and contract negotiations are under way, which could have a big effect on the budget. The Navy is also in the process of privatizing its infrastructure. Cohen said it would be in the best interest of the community for the city to take control and manage utilities.In addition, the city's popular marina is showing its age and the city doesn't have funds for improvements. The marina's lease agreement with the state Department of Natural Resources has soared from under $10,000 to $80,000 a year. Help from the state capital is about to run dry.During recent trips to Olympia it has become quite clear that any financial assistance from the state is highly unlikely, she said. The reality of our budget is as grievous as theirs.In the future, Cohen said the voters will need to become more involved in and aware of city government.I-695 forces local issues, strategies, priorities and operations to the ballot box, she said. We are entering a time when municipal operations, programs and services are subject to voter approval.Cohen also talked about the recent consolidation of the city building, planning and engineering departments into a single department called Development Services. She also introduced Ken Nyberg, the new city administrator.There may be more changes to come, the mayor said. Adjusting our city operations to comply with these initiatives will require additional organizational streamlining beyond what we have already undertaken, she said, not elaborating.Cohen's solution to the city's financial woes is simple: more money.Without question, I believe the answer for this community is a strong, cohesive, community-endorsed economic development agenda, she said.We need to infuse new dollars into our community and new dollars can only be infused through the expansion of existing business and the introduction of new business or industry into our community.You can reach staff reporter Jessie Stensland at jstensland@whidbeynewstimes.com or call 675-6611. "

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