City budget: Department heads detail where the money goes

October 14, 2008

By Jon Savelle

It takes a lot of money to run a city, and lately the City Council has been learning how every penny is spent.

The administration’s proposed spending package for 2009 was delivered to the City Council Oct. 6 by Mayor Ava Frisinger, and the following evening council members huddled in the Cougar Room of City Hall to hear department heads describe their own budgets, and lob questions at them.

It was a long night. There are 13 city departments, and spending for each of them requires council review. But that meeting was just the first in a series of exchanges between council members and departments, nonprofit groups and the public.

Interspersed with those meetings will be others at which the council wrestles with the budget unaided. In mid-December, they will adopt a 2009 budget.

To start with, however, was the night of the departments’ funding requests. This includes the City Council’s budget, which, as Councilman John Rittenhouse noted, shows an odd pattern. He pointed out that actual spending for benefits, supplies and other services and charges was several thousand dollars less in 2008 than was budgeted, yet the proposed 2009 budget does not reflect lower costs.

“It is a reduction from the previous budget, but it is an increase from actual spending,” Rittenhouse said of the 2009 proposal. “I would like to see, in the last four years, what we are actually spending.”

An explanation was given by City Administrator Leon Kos, who said each year’s council budget is based on planned spending plus a bit of cushion; to budget based on the current year’s actual expenses leaves little margin for contingencies.

Rittenhouse said he understood this, but asked Kos and Finance Director Jim Blake to flag the item for review. Later, he found similar discrepancies in other department budgets and made the same request for them.

New for 2009

Proposed 2009 spending for most departments departs little from current figures, with some notable exceptions. In the Executive Department, for example, salaries in the mayor’s office would go up about $43,000, primarily because a new public information officer position was added this year. Benefit costs also edge upward.

Other increases in the Executive Department include salaries, benefits and programs at the senior center; spending for a human services needs assessment; and “undesignated agency contributions” that will come before the council.

Overall, the proposed 2009 spending by the Executive Department is about $1.8 million, compared with $1.7 million this year. Of that difference, roughly $52,000 is for community services.

Another notable spending increase can be found in the budget for information technology. An upgrade for the city’s Web site and new legislative agenda software will cost $26,000, but when online, will greatly improve access to documents and legislation.

Spending is also increased for the Municipal Court. Roughly $250,000 more is requested for 2009 to pay for a probation officer and security improvements. The latter reflect the poor security systems now in use, the higher court caseload and defendants.

Kos said many of those picked up for misdemeanors actually have felony records and pose a significant security risk. Councilman David Kappler agreed, saying that on a busy Wednesday, the courtroom and lobby are jammed, with security spread thin.

Police, fire budgets go up

Of the $32.8 million general fund, the Police Department uses nearly one-fourth — $7.7 million. This is up roughly $600,000 from the 2008 budget, with the increases spread among salaries, overtime, benefits and assorted charges for operations, the jail, dispatch and records.

Fire services, likewise, have gone up. As explained by Eastside Fire & Rescue Deputy Chief Wes Collins, the board of directors could not accommodate Issaquah’s request for a 5 percent cut in nonsalary spending. This would have sidelined special response teams, training and volunteer programs, which board members were not willing to accept. Instead, they chose not to fill two new positions.

Even so, Issaquah’s spending for its share of the regional fire consortium goes up about $240,000 for 2009, to about $4.6 million.

In contrast to other departments’ increased costs, the Building Department projects a 3 percent decrease for 2009. Revenues will exceed expenditures by about $303,000.  Director John Minato won compliments from the council for this feat, which reflects slightly lower spending on salaries and benefits, plus about $475,000 in additional revenue.

The revenue increase is due to continued heavy activity in commercial construction, despite residential construction having dropped by 50 percent, Minato said.

After police, parks spending is the largest outlay in the 2009 budget, at $5.6 million. This covers recreation, planning and park facilities. When combined with other city facilities’ maintenance, which the Parks Department also performs, the total nearly equals police at $7.5 million. That compares with $7.3 million budgeted for 2008, with the increase largely due to salary and benefit costs.

Trolley spending questioned

Spending for Public Works Operations, which is divided into different funds for streets, water, sewer, storm water, equipment replacement and shop construction, attracted few questions from the council except for the downtown trolley, for which a new trolley barn is proposed by community supporters, and for which Public Works Operations has included spending for utility connections.

That total is $104,250, an amount that elicited a collective gasp from the council. Bret Heath, director of Public Works Operations, said the spending is supported by the administration, but still requires council approval. It is included in the budget for planning purposes.

“We need to make a decision on whether we support this or not,” Councilman Fred Butler said. He asked that the council be given detailed information that “lays it all out.”

With this meeting behind them, council members and city staff members are preparing for their next one, Oct. 15, at which the departments will respond to the council’s questions. The following day, the council meets again to hear funding requests from nonprofit agencies and institutions.

Reach Reporter Jon Savelle at 392-6434, ext. 234, or jsavelle@isspress.com.

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