Council tentatively OKs cuts

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— The rain and snow arrived right on cue Tuesday afternoon, but not even minor flooding in the city clerk's office could save City Hall's new roof from a budget tempest.

The City Council tentatively approved $1.39 million in budget cuts being recommended Tuesday night by City Manager Paul Hughes and Finance Director Don Taylor.

The original spending plan, before the council began whittling, totaled $21 million. The latest draft of the budget anticipates an 11-percent decline in sales-tax revenues.

The most recent cuts include $635,000 that would have been used to put a new roof on City Hall as well as adding new heating and air-conditioning equipment.

"We had a portion of the ceiling in the city clerk's office that collapsed today with the rain," Hughes said. "We'll have roofers look at what can be done to seal the roof as best we can and get another year out of it."

Hughes said he didn't relish investing between $10,000 and $20,000 in a short-term fix, but he thinks it is necessary to push back the new roof construction.

"I don't see how we can get through a winter without doing something," Hughes said. "If we don't do something, we may be pushed to find temporary office space for about 30 people."

Council asked for additional deep budget cuts during its annual budget retreat earlier this month. City officials are concerned about the effects a national recession and the public's fear of traveling in the face of terrorist attacks could have on its budget.

The city relies solely on sales taxes and grants for its funding. Much of the sales-tax revenue is generated by tourism.

Next to the City Hall improvements, the second biggest line item in the budget cuts is a hiring freeze Taylor hopes will conserve $150,000. However, Council President Kevin Bennett was careful to point out that freezes will not affect police and fire departments.

Councilman Paul Strong told his colleagues he's not certain he can support the budget when the ordinance comes up for first reading Oct. 16. Strong said he believes city staff should have looked harder at cutting services and left more of the capital budget intact. In addition to the City Hall improvements, the budget cuts trimmed $115,000 from a plan to add parking on 10th Street and a $150,000 grant match for completing the third phase of the Stockbridge transit center.

Hughes told Strong he believes it will make more sense to take a close look at city services in the spring. That's when the city will have a clearer picture of ski season sales-tax revenues. Hughes also plans to conduct a thorough study of city services by spring to determine what, if any, are not highly valued by city residents.

Councilman Bud Romberg agreed with Hughes. He pointed out that once city services are cut, they are harder to restore than capital projects that have been deferred.

Councilman Ken Brenner lamented the disappearance of funding for the Emerald City teen center from the budget.

"That's a tough place to go after services," Brenner said. "We have 30 or 40 working families that depend on that service."

Hughes pointed out that rent on the building recently doubled, putting the cost per client well beyond reason.

"We didn't like doing that," Hughes said. "And we know we need to get that back in a facility we control. But that's the kind of decision we're up against this year."

Outgoing Councilman Jim Engelken warned his colleagues to do their homework on any plans to cut city services before spring arrives.

"Boy, if you think capital was hard to cut, that is really going to be tough," Engelken said of city services. "We've got to really prepare the community for that."

Hughes said he doesn't want to create any false expectations about what budget line items might be restored after the second quarter of next year.

"I'd love to be able to tell staff that we'll put most of this back, but I have no assurance," Hughes said. "I think this is a very, very tough budget."

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