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City passes budget, retains utility tax
12/19/2012 10:17:53 AM


Submitted photo
Attendees at Tuesday's City Council meeting were greeted by the illuminating sight of 140 luminaria placed on the pathways outside City Hall. The decorative lantern feature is at the center of a new campaign by the Liberty Lake Kiwanis to raise funds for the municipal library.

By Craig Howard
Splash Contributor

While some may have been anticipating a testy quarrel over retention of the utility tax in the 2013 budget at Tuesday night's City Council meeting, status quo trumped any squabble as the governing board kept the 3 percent duty and approved next year's financial game plan with a unanimous vote.

Just in case anyone had lingering misgivings about the controversial assessment on electricity, cable, telephone, gas and garbage installed at the close of 2010, Finance Director RJ Stevenson provided a final run-through on justification for the tax prior to the second read on Ordinance 204, establishing a budget for next year. Stevenson's presentation, originally scheduled for the Dec. 4 meeting, included a broad overview of the state, national and worldwide economies as well as an evaluation of both property tax and sales tax as revenue generators for the city.

To start, Stevenson noted that the city has projected income of $1.95 million in sales tax for 2013 as compared to a peak of 2007, when revenue came in at $2.24 million. He pointed out that the majority of sales tax revenue is generated through retail sales, particularly in the automotive industry. When the economy goes south, car and RV sales generally suffer, and proceeds from sales tax decline correspondingly, Stevenson said.

"Sales tax can be an unstable revenue source," Stevenson said. "We haven't quite fully recovered to where we were in 2007, even though there is some encouraging news out there. We need some other revenue source to pay for the capital needs of the city."

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Mayor Steve Peterson's preliminary budget for 2013 targeted money from the utility tax toward street maintenance and repair.  On Tuesday, City Administrator Kay Allen pointed out that upkeep of the transportation system is "about more than potholes and paving." As the city strives for safety on its roads, Allen said the city would like to address issues like improving pedestrian paths and crossings as well as updating the timing of traffic signals.

Stevenson pointed out that while the approach at City Hall has remained lean over the years - maintaining the same level of full-time employees as it had in 2009 - the city "will have more services to provide" based on population increasing by 15 percent since 2008.

Public comment on the budget and the utility tax was strangely absent on Tuesday, with most of the debate - both pro and con - occurring at the Dec. 4 meeting. Council Member Cris Kaminskas did say the council should revisit the cafeteria-style approach to the utility tax adjusting rates based on luxury versus need in January. There has been talk of reducing the electric portion of the tax out of consideration for manufacturers like Huntwood.

"I'd like to propose we look at options of how to split the tax apart," Kaminskas said.

After hearing that only 13 Liberty Lake residents had accessed the utility tax reimbursement available for low-income seniors over the past year, Council Member Josh Beckett said the city needs to do a better job publicizing the tax break.

"I'm certain there are more than 13 people who could potentially qualify," Beckett said. "We need to get the word out about this." 

The Dec. 18 meeting also featured an unceremonious conclusion to the ballyhooed debate over municipal animal protection, as council granted authorization for Peterson to establish an interlocal agreement with Spokane County Regional Animal Protection Service. The city's contract with SCRAPS for 2013 will amount to $11,620.

In her city administrator report, Allen said the city would not be pursuing an energy grant to upgrade the water system at Trailhead Golf Course. Beckett wondered aloud why the city had shelved the application in light of a potential 40 percent annual savings in water each year.

"We needed to pause and revisit the technical work," Allen responded. "Plus, the likelihood of getting this grant was remote."

The city can apply for the energy grant every two years. In response to Beckett's concerns, Allen did say she would research the question of irrigation efficiencies and report back to council.

Allen said there were plans to have "a near complete design" for the centerpiece of a roundabout at the intersection of Harvard, Mission and westbound Interstate 90 ready by the Jan. 15 council meeting. Public opinion was leaning toward a central art feature, Allen noted.

Meanwhile, talk is moving swiftly on plans to renovate a field purchased by the city from the Central Valley School District last month. After discussions with local resident and former professional baseball player Kevin Stocker, Allen said the city is focused on "figuring out what kind of fields and how many fields we want to build." The first meeting of a steering committee on the project is scheduled for Jan. 10. The city has set aside $500,000 in 2013 for improvements to the space.  

As has been the case in the final council meeting of each year, Police Chief Brian Asmus handed out awards acknowledging several officers in his department. The honor roll for 2012 includes Austin Brantingham (Volunteer of the Year); Taj Wilkerson (Sergeant's Award); Brad Deines (Chief's Award) and Mike Bogenreif (Officer of the Year).

While Asmus may have been the presenter of distinctions on Tuesday, Peterson made it a point to direct accolades to the head of the police department, who is now the most tenured employee in Liberty Lake's brief history. Asmus began with the city on Dec. 1, 2001.

"Thank you for all your service, chief," Peterson said. 

The mayor also paid tribute to a city employee, Mick Curry, for his tireless dedication in maintaining and improving municipal grounds and facilities.

"Mick is always there, even when it's not the most convenient time," Peterson said. "He keeps things running smoothly and has been a good, quality employee of the city for many years. We couldn't do this without him."

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