Crowd hears outline of Walla Walla budget plans

Cuts to the police, fire and parks departments are being eyed.

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WALLA WALLA -- Proposed layoffs in the Police Department, a cut in library hours and the closure of the Pioneer Park Aviary were three of the most contested issues at a public meeting Tuesday night to discuss how the city will make up for a near $2 million budget shortfall next year.

About 30 people filled the small training room of Walla Walla Fire Station 2, where City Manger Nabiel Shawa and Support Services Director Tim McCarty described a bleak future for the 2011-2012 biennial budget, one that will most likely begin with the layoffs of 25 city employees by Dec. 31 of this year.

"It (the budget shortfall) started out at $1.3 million, and then $1.5 (million) a couple months ago. Now we are facing somewhere in the range of $1.8 million. And most recent an additional $300,000," Shawa said.

The city's general fund currently operates at just over $24 million a year, with 68 percent of that cost going to salaries and benefits.

"You can see that in order to address the general fund shortfall, most of that money is spent in personnel," McCarty noted.

The result is that even the "sacred cow" departments of police and fire are facing budget cuts.

"Every department is going to share in the pain here, but it isn't necessarily going to be equal," Shawa said.

Police will lose roughly three full-time equivalencies, which will most likely come from cuts of crime prevention and administrative staff, without any cuts to active duty officers.

"I don't want to reduce the boots on the street; I want to find other places to make those cuts," Shawa said.

But for the eight crime prevention program supporters who came to hear and make themselves heard, it just didn't make sense to cut any police staff. And for Sharon Bright, cuts to administrative staff mean officers will spend less time patrolling streets and more time behind a desk.

"What you are telling me is you are keeping the quantity, but what you are showing us is that the quality is going down because they won't be able to get out there as much on the street," Bright said.

David Fetterman also noted Walla Walla thrives off of its reputation as a great place to visit and live, and he said cuts to crime prevention will hurt the economy.

"If graffiti starts showing up on everything, if we got junkers parked around ... people are going to stop coming here. That is the reason I am here. This is almost like a resort town that still has a homey feel to it. And we will lose that," Fetterman said.

As for the Fire Department, it is facing the cuts of a deputy chief, a captain and a fire prevention officer. But Shawa said no key ambulance and engine crew personnel would be cut.

What may get permanently cut is the Pioneer Park Aviary. Along with one arborist and one administrative staff member, closure would save just under $55,000 per year, though it would cost about $20,000 to officially close the facility and make sure all the birds are given new homes.

"I kind of see it as shooting ourself in the foot by reducing the parks and the aviary," said one elderly man. And he went on to explain how years ago he had interviewed for a job in town and was considering relocating to Walla Walla for the position. His future employer encouraged him to see the town, take a walk through Pioneer Park and check out the aviary, which he did. Both, he added, helped motivate him to live here.

"I just think that we are misjudging the value of that facility," the man said.

But Shawa said the cost of the facility will be far more than $54,000 per year, as hundreds of thousands of dollars in repairs are currently needed for the netting structure.

Cuts to the library were also criticized, especially since the library received the single largest proportional hit at 25 percent of its budget. But part of the reason for that amount is due to current negotiations for a 2011 reimbursement contract with the Walla Walla County Rural Library District.

Currently, the library is open about 45 hours per week. But if a contract cannot be worked out with the Rural Library District, Shawa said those hours could be cut to just over 30.

Members of the audience also criticized the city for its "Cadillac" level of benefits that it provides city employees, especially in the area of health care.

"When your insurance costs are $4.6 million at a city this size, and Pasco is at $2.6 million as a self-insured, that difference alone would make up your budget shortfall," area Crime Watch president Jeffrey Buttice said.

McCarty responded that the possibility of switching too a self-insured system had been considered in the past, but he added there had always been other factors that made it economically unfeasible.

Alfred Diaz can be reached at alfreddiaz@wwub.com or 526-8325.

Thursday meeting

On Thursday, a second 2011-2012 biennial budget information meeting will held at the Center at the Park, 720 Sprague St, 7 p.m.

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