After four years of a recession that’s pounded local and state governments dependent on sales tax like the relentless surf on a sandy cliff, erosion has taken a toll.
This was evident last week as Walla Walla City Manager Nabiel Shawa conducted a public work session on the city’s 2013-2014 budget. Cuts in spending have to be made, and none of the choices are easy. In addition, city property taxes could be going up about $18 a year for a $150,000 house if the city dips into its banked levy capacity as proposed.
This year the general fund budget is $24.9 million. It would go up slightly to about $25 million next year and in 2014. But costs, including salaries mandated by contracts and health insurance, are going up at a much higher rate.
In his preliminary budget, Shawa said the plan is to cut one police officer, one fire prevention officer and close the Pioneer Park Aviary.
But the city government, in keeping its promise to increase street repair, will spend about $500,000 each of the next two years for street work.
The public will have an opportunity to discuss these and other budget proposals as the City Council makes the final decision on what is — and is not — funded.
Four years ago the idea of these kind of cuts coupled with even a small tax increase would not have been considered. Now, it’s painfully tolerated as the new, harsh reality of the Great Recession.
Shawa said the cut in the Police Department will come by not filling a vacancy. This will bring the number of commissioned officers to 41 — down four from 2010. At the Fire Department, one of the two fire-prevention officers will be cut, saving the city $105,000.
Losing personnel in the police and fire departments is clearly a concern. Yet, the tax revenue has gone flat, leaving the city with only lousy choices.
One of the most politically sensitive choices for elimination is the Pioneer Park Aviary. It was on the chopping block in the past but was temporarily saved when concerned citizens raised private funds to keep it open.
Shawa said the Aviary was targeted for closure because it was ranked lowest in a survey of residents. When asked to rate the importance of everything from police to library service to bike lanes to drinking water. Of the 20 services included in the rating, the Pioneer Park Aviary was at the bottom of the list.
The city will garner a savings of $55,000 by closing the Aviary. In the scope of the city budget it is not much. But at this point, after cuts on top of cuts, those $50,000 expenses really start to add up.
We hate the idea of closing the Aviary. It adds personality and charm to Pioneer Park and is an asset to the region.
Perhaps a civic group will step forward with a plan for ongoing funding or maybe one generous donor might appear to save the day. If not, it looks like the Aviary will be a memory sometime next year.
The proposed cuts and the tax increase aren’t putting smiles on faces. It’s simply what city leaders must do absent better solutions.