Bellingham mayor plans for balanced 2014 budget

THE BELLINGHAM HERALDOctober 7, 2013 

BELLINGHAM - Mayor Kelli Linville has presented City Council with a proposed 2014 city budget with revenues that match spending for the first time since the start of the recession.

For the sixth consecutive year, the city will make ends meet by dipping into financial reserves in 2013. If the council approves her proposed $68.7 million general fund spending plan for 2014, next year will be different, Linville told the council on Monday, Oct. 7.

Linville's budget assumes that the council will approve a 1 percent property tax increase, which would raise about $180,000 more money. The mayor also said her budget is based on cautious projections of 2014 tax revenues, and contains no layoffs of city employees.

Linville's budget also proposes an end to city funding for the Public Development Authority, an entity set up by the council in 2008 at the urging of former mayor Dan Pike. The development authority, directed by a citizen board, was supposed to find revenue-producing projects for idle parcels of city real estate and help the city deal with recession-driven deficits. Instead, the city has been spending hundreds of thousands of dollars every year on staff and other PDA expenses, with the only cash return being the $1.2 million sale of a property at Cornwall Avenue and Maple Street for less than the city's original purchase price.

The Public Development Authority survived a near-death experience at the end of 2012, when the council voted 4-3 to approve spending $250,000 to keep it alive during 2013.

Since then, authority executive director Jim Long has been busy trying to enlist a group of property owners to partner with the city on a redevelopment project that Long says will link downtown and Old Town to a redeveloping central waterfront. He has reported some success in that effort. Linville remains skeptical.

The development authority's fate is likely to be the subject of another debate as the council wades into the details of Linville's budget proposal.

Even if a majority of council members decide against using general tax revenues for another year of Public Development Authority funding, the council could keep it alive for another year by dipping into the proceeds from the sale of the Cornwall Avenue property. About $1 million from that sale remains in the city's parking fund.

In an earlier interview, Linville said she would prefer to keep the parking fund money for partnerships with private developers to add more parking spaces downtown in the relatively near future.

Other highlights of Linville's 2014 spending proposals include:

• $1 million to start the process of moving some city offices into the old Federal Building at Cornwall Avenue and Magnolia Street. Linville noted that the nearly vacant city-owned building has cost about $200,000 a year to maintain, and she believes her proposal will get some value out of the building. Another $1 million will likely be needed to complete the move.

• An additional $400,000 for public safety. Among other things, this will pay for two additional police officers who will be assigned to community policing and crime prevention.

• Linville also expects to maintain city financial reserves at 12 percent of expenses.

The information on financial reserves was corrected Oct. 8, 2013.

Reach John Stark at 360-715-2274 or john.stark@bellinghamherald.com. Read his Politics Blog at bellinghamherald.com/politics-blog or follow him on Twitter at @bhamheraldpolitics.

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