ARLINGTON — People here are pitching ideas, any ideas, other than raising fees and taxes to solve the city’s budget problems.
“I feel betrayed and disgusted with government. We can’t have more taxes. I have been here two years and I probably will have to put my house up for sale,” Phil Lane said. “I know the economy is part of the problem. But the city has not used what it has for alternate forms of income. Let’s have an eagle feeding station by the river and charge people to see it. That’s an untapped resource.”
Council members and city staff listened a week ago to Lane and a handful of other angry citizens blast the city’s proposed revenues to balance the 2012 budget. Tonight council members plan to review those comments as they continue to grapple with city finances.
While the city’s population has grown by 4,000 people since 2003 to almost 18,000, Arlington’s sales tax and building permit revenues have dropped to the levels of 2003 and remain flat, assistant city administrator Kristin Banfield said. The revenue loss has resulted in an anticipated $2 million budget deficit.
City officials came up with spending cuts of $1.26 million — including unpaid employee furloughs, no raises and lost jobs — to lower the budget deficit to $740,000.
Further spending cuts would include layoffs of as many as 16 employees, Banfield said. The number of city employees has decreased during the past three years from 160 to 140, she said.
The loss of more employees could result in the closure of a fire station, increased emergency response times from police and fire departments, severely decreased street and parks maintenance, reduced hours and services at City Hall, along with a curtailed ability to support, retain and recruit new business to the city, she said.
In order to balance the budget and deal with the remaining deficit, the city is left to consider increased utility rates as well as a vehicle tab fee and a voter-approved sales tax increase, Banfield said.
The proposal is to raise cable TV, garbage, sewer, stormwater and water utility rates by 3 percent and electricity rates by 1 percent. The estimated monthly household utility bill would increase $7.27 a month or $87.24 a year.
The city also plans to raise its portion of property tax collection by 1 percent and to ask voters to agree to a one-tenth of 1 percent sales tax increase for police and fire service. The vehicle tab fee proposed is $20 to help pay for road maintenance and construction.
In her budget message to residents, Mayor Margaret Larson said the proposed revenue package likely would cost a family of four making $60,000 about $131 a year or about $11 per month.
If voters are willing to raise sales tax revenue by an additional one-tenth of 1 percent in the new year for road maintenance, the vehicle tab fee could be dropped before it’s ever collected.
Nonetheless, the city needs more revenue, Larson said.
“Without this additional funding, the city will have no choice but to reduce the level of service we currently provide to our citizens and businesses,” Larson said.
Former city councilwoman Bea Randall begged the council last week to consider the plight of utility rate payers. One of her grown children lost a job and has moved back in with Randall and her husband, who live on a fixed retirement income.
“I know your struggle over the budget,” she told the council. “But this is not the time to raise utility rates.”
Rocket Alley grill and bowling alley owner Steve Saunders said he works 100 hours a week and can’t seem to get ahead. Rising utility rates aren’t going to help, he said.
“Where does it end?” Saunders asked. “But if you do decide to cut back on services, please don’t cut public safety. Cut from the top of your administration.”
A group of city employees sent a letter to the City Council in October asking them to consider that most staff members live in the city and already have agreed to the loss of cost-of-living pay increases, unpaid furlough days each month, higher insurance premiums and increased work loads.
Is it fair to put more employees out of work when the people of Arlington could help shoulder the budget deficit with $11 a month, the Employee Representation Board asked.
“We understand that tax increases are difficult for everyone,” the letter said. “Please consider the fate of city employees who could potentially lose their jobs … a very grim and severe outlook.”
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Arlington City Council plans to talk about the 2012 budget at its workshop meeting at 7 tonight in council chambers, 110 E. Third St. The council has a public hearing on the budget set for 7 p.m. Nov. 21, also in the council chambers. More information about the 2012 budget is available on the city’s website: www.arlingtonwa.gov.