Sultan strains to prop up finances

SULTAN — Police Chief Fred Walser didn’t need a recent state audit to tell him the city’s finances were bad. He’s seen the result of those problems the past couple years as his police staff has dropped from 14 members to nine.

In the meantime, the city’s population has grown by about 1,000 in the past four years, and crime rates increased by almost 14 percent and burglary rates rose by almost 69 percent from 2001 to 2002, Walser said.

"I think it’s tied directly to the loss of officers and visibility of police in the community," he said. "We are trying to maintain the level of service that we had in the past. And we can’t."

The department’s situation reflects the city’s fiscal woes. Its general fund is about $300,000 in debt now, said Mayor Ben Tolson, who took office in January.

Tolson said he has no idea yet how the city is going to break out of its financial doldrums.

But it certainly can’t do what it’s done in the past.

To balance a shortfall in the general fund, the city borrowed money from other funds, including $300,000 in 2002 and 2003 from the utility fund, leaving several funds in debt, the state audit released last week says. That was illegal, as state law doesn’t allow a city to use one fund to benefit another.

But such a move has been common at the city, said Councilman Jeff Everett, who took office in November 2001, adding he didn’t know it was against the law.

The city spent about $1.8 million in 2001 and 2002 beyond the budget the City Council approved, the audit states. That also was illegal, as state law requires a city to amend its budget before overspending.

The audit also found the city didn’t notify the state when it used more than $300,000 in federal money in 2001. In such cases, the city has to complete an audit annually, instead of every two years.

Sultan officials blame the revenue loss on Initiative 695. The 1999 measure cut motor vehicle license tab fees to a flat $30, which hurt all local governments.

Monroe, for example, lost $138,000 a year because of the initiative, city officials said.

Still, Monroe has managed to balance its budget, Mayor Donnetta Walser said. But it has been hard.

Mayor Walser, who is married to the Sultan police chief, said she can sympathize with the financial predicaments of smaller cities such as Sultan.

"We’ve had more resources to draw," Mayor Walser said. "But we are still struggling to make ends meet."

Stumped on how Sultan can raise more money, Tolson said he wants to encourage more new businesses to locate in town.

He expects some new businesses this year, but what if the city can’t get anticipated revenues?

"Your guess is as good as mine," Tolson said.

Reporter Yoshiaki Nohara: 425-339-3029 or

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