The human side of tightened city budgets

Suppose you were put in charge of your city’s finances. What would you do? Save a job, or fix the roads? Or pay for police protection? Or support the food bank?

Those were the kinds of choices that city officials in the Valley had to make this fall in setting the 2011 budget.

The priorities that they picked will have repercussions in your life. With North Bend tightening its belt and Snoqualmie upping its rates and fees, changes will be subtle, but noticeable.

North Bend’s involuntary furloughs and staff reductions could mean fewer folks behind the counters to handle your business. It could mean permits take longer to turn around, and delays in general as projects are redistributed among staff.

Budget shrinkage may also be noticeable on city streets. The city has hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of road projects that need to be completed, but won’t be. Community allocations also took a cut. Among the groups to take a hit were the Snoqualmie Valley Elk Management Group, Encompass and senior services.

To City Administrator Duncan Wilson, the painful process of picking between staff or providing service was pronounced this season. Every dollar counted. Cities try to put their mission—stewarding citizens’ resources—first, but it’s impossible to separate the human element.

“There’s real people and real emotion involved,” he told me.

New fees

In Snoqualmie, a million-dollar cut to last year’s budget won’t mean significant layoffs and service impacts. But residents will notice higher utility bills and a fatter car tab fee.

Snoqualmie is using its new $20 Transportation Benefit District car tab fee and utility and garbage rate hikes to pay for infrastructure costs, including paying off the new City Hall.

While higher fees are never popular, this route allows the city to avoid some long-term costs. To me, the hikes are par for the course as Snoqualmie attempts to start long-delayed infrastructure fixes in a time of declining assistance from the state. Somehow, some way, citizens will end up with the bill. Putting it off just costs more in the long run.

Snoqualmie’s fiscal outlook for 2011 remains conservative. There were no significant improvements to any funds. Business costs are going up, typically faster than revenues grow.

The business-related tax picture for the city is far from rosy. According to Snoqualmie Finance Officer Rob Orton, the number of firms filing B&O taxes fell by 100 in the last year.

Triple-digit drops in the number of groups doing business in this community are scary. One only has to look at the number of empty storefronts to be worried. The city’s latest sales tax figures, from a few months ago, are still in decline, but at least the rate of their fall is slowing.

Sales and B&O taxes are among the few city sources of revenue that aren’t capped by initiatives. If the local economy can start humming again, maybe North Bend can overlay a few more streets, and Snoqualmie residents can forget about more fee hikes.

What can you do help turn the financial picture around? Simple: Shop local. Your patronage not only helps your neighbors, it also makes for a better bottom line at the local City Hall.

• E-mail Editor Seth Truscott at editor@valleyrecord.com.

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