Worries aired at Walla Walla City Council budget session

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WALLA WALLA -- At a Monday work session, City Council members voiced concerns and frustrations with the proposed 2011-2012 budget, pointing the finger at too high of salaries and benefits for city employees and questioning why, with even more revenue cuts projected for next year, the budget will still rely on $400,000 in reserve funds to makes ends meet.

"Do you really think we have reached a sustainable budget when we spend $400,000 more than we take in in?" Council Member Dominick Elia asked City Manager Nabiel Shawa.

Other Council members present were Jerry Cummins, Fred Mitchell and Mayor Barbara Clark.

But trying to skim another $400,000 off the budget, Shawa said, would have meant even more cuts to city departments, which are facing up to 32 projected layoffs by the end of the year.

"If we have to make further cuts, I would rather do this through attrition (next year)," Nabiel said, noting the city might also make up the $400,000 in tax revenues from construction projects.

Clark also favored forgoing the additional $400,000 in cuts, noting the layoffs are affecting more than just services.

"We are talking about morale of employees ... for me, I hope we will provide as much services as we can as long as we can," Clark said.

Another issue Council members addressed was the skyrocketing cost of health care benefits, which will see a projected 10-13 percent increase over the next two years, according to a staff report.

But in recent weeks, crime prevention program supporters have questioned why Walla Walla's benefits packages are cumulatively high than those in larger cities such as Pasco.

And Elia also spoke strongly against the city's inability to curb costs for medical, dental and other benefits.

"Our benefits to me have gotten out of control cost wise ... That is in excess of $20,000 per employee for health, vision and dental. And with all due respect they don't pick the plan, and I think that is a lot of money," Elia said.

Cummins also voiced concerns the budget crisis would get worse before getting better. And it was almost repeat warning of what he gave two years ago, when he and his colleagues struggled to work out the 2009-2010 biennial budget, in face of again projected revenue shortfalls.

"They (legislative budget committees) are $1.75 billion behind at this point folks ... I think we have to be prepared for the possibility that we will get less money than what we were anticipating in this budget in state revenues ... I don't think we have seen the bottom of it, Nabiel, and when the Legislature meets I think we are going to see more money swept (away)," Cummins said.

The gravity of the situation was also noted by Mitchell, the most senior member of the Council who first started serving in the 1980s.

"It is a very tough time. It is the worst budget I have ever seen in my time with the city," Mitchell said.

The Council will review the budget at its regular Wednesday night meeting at the Council chambers, 15 N. Third Avenue, 7 p.m. Public testimony will be heard.

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