Bellingham mayor’s planned biennial budget balanced for 2015, close for 2016

A draft of the city’s first biennial budget comes close to the goal of balancing the General Fund over the next two years.

For the 2015 portion of the plan, General Fund revenue and spending even out, but to truly balance the books for 2016, the city will need to find another estimated $650,000 in revenue over the next two years, Mayor Kelli Linville told City Council Monday, Oct. 6.

At about 0.45 percent, that gap represents a small fraction of the proposed $142.3 million in General Fund expenditures over the biennium. The city will need to look for sources to close that gap during the supplemental budget process in 2015, Linville said.

“Every year it’s hard to get the revenues and the expenditures to match,” Linville said. “Our goal was to have balanced spending plans for the last two years. In ‘15 and ‘16 we got pretty close.”

Linville’s budget plan also calls to split the Street Fund in two for clarity. In the past, the fund paid for street projects as well as administrative and engineering costs. The new budget pulls the administration and engineering costs into a new fund under Public Works, leaving the money for paving and construction projects, including projects that fall under the bicycle and pedestrian master plans, in the Street Fund.

About $550,000 that would have gone to the Street Fund was used to fund the Public Development Authority in 2014. Next year that money is reallocated to the Street Fund under the proposed budget. That could mean the end of city funding for the authority, unless four or more council members vote to put the program back in the budget.

In 2013, Linville’s budget also proposed an end to city funding for the development authority, which was set up in 2008 to find revenue-producing projects for empty or idle pieces of real estate owned by the city to help deal with recession-driven deficits. Instead, the city has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars each 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 development authority’s future remains uncertain after consultants found this fall that a proposal to put top-of-the-line office space and apartments on public and private land in Old Town would not be feasible in the next few years without millions of dollars in help. That could prove to be the third and final straw for the PDA, which barely scraped by in both 2013 and 2012 when council members voted to keep it running.

Other major changes and highlights from the proposed budget include:

•  An additional $4 million over two years to the police department for two new downtown beat cops, a lieutenant, a neighborhood compliance officer, a part-time position, 911 and dispatch projects, equipment and training. The department’s total projected expenditures for the two years is about $57 million.

•  About $380,000 in human and social service grants to strengthen the city’s relationships with local social service agencies.

•  Nearly $14 million in Lake Whatcom investments over the biennium to put toward watershed acquisition, water treatment and invasive species boat inspections.

•  Reinvigorating the Planning and Community Development department with an additional $6.6 million over two years to focus on quality future growth for the city.

City Council and staff will meet each week over the next two months to talk about specific portions of the budget and eventually vote on the final plan. The PDA is up for discussion on Monday, Oct. 13.