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City panel ties a string around new budget

After spending four and a half hours wrestling with possible additions and reductions to the proposed city budget for 2011-12, the Lake Oswego Budget Committee on Tuesday wrapped up its fifth meeting by unanimously approving a budget for the next fiscal year.

The 2011-12 spending plan now goes to the city council for adoption before it takes effect July 1.

The proposed $149.1 million budget included $80.8 million for operations, about 6 percent higher than last year's estimated spending.

Of the $4.7 million increase, almost two-thirds is to help support Lake Oswego schools and spend money related to the West End Building. Without those costs, and without transferring money to the Lake Oswego-Tigard Water Partnership Fund, the city's budget would be flat, according to the city manager.

The 14-person budget committee, made up of the city council and seven appointed citizen members, approved a slightly different plan that injects more money into planning and development efforts in the Lake Grove area, funnels $50,000 toward invasive species removal on public lands, supports an $80,000 upgrade of the city website and marks $55,000 in tourism funds for stabilization of the city-owned iron workers' cottage.

At the same time, the approved budget does not set aside $105,000 needed to select a site and hold an election to build a new police station, slashes $127,000 in planned spending on natural resources education and outreach and nibbles away at money long spent on participation in environmental sustainability organizations.

Following are some of the highlights:

Lake Grove

Lake Grove Village emerged as a spending priority.

The committee unanimously approved adding $250,000 to $75,000 already budgeted for the Lake Grove Village Center plan.

At least $40,000 of the total is meant to fund a gateway or streetscape project supporting private developers' investments in the area.

Streetcar

When the city council recently voted to continue an analysis of a possible streetcar line to the city, it also called for conducting a community survey on the issue, communicating new information to the public and holding a citywide advisory vote next fall or winter.

The budget committee voted to eliminate funding for the communications piece of the project, shaving about $45,000 from $90,000 in estimated costs.

Councilor Mary Olson said numerous groups have worked to educate the public about the streetcar plan for two years.

'If that propaganda machine can't get the job done by now, more money isn't going to do it,' she said.

Mayor Jack Hoffman countered that idea.

'I see it as an obligation of a city, a municipal corporation, to communicate with its citizens,' he said. 'My goal as the mayor is to have an informed vote with neutral information.'

Hoffman has also supported officials participation in past Rail-Volution conferences, which bring together advocates of transit and alternative forms of transportation from across the country.

'As the council goes through the analysis of whether a streetcar is or is not good for the community, it might be helpful for three or four councilors to go,' he said at a past budget committee meeting. The city council planned to send at least two people to the next national rail event.

But the committee cut $4,000 proposed to attend the conference.

'I go back to core services,' Olson said. 'What's core and what's discretionary? In a tough year, I think we could reduce the training budget quite a bit.'

The committee also cut $3,000 paying for membership in the Community Streetcar Coalition.

Environmental sustainability

Some smaller proposed membership cuts took an overall whack at support for environmental sustainability, long a priority in Lake Oswego.

Committee member Dan Williams proposed eliminating staff memberships in Local Governments for Sustainability and in the International Society of Sustainability Professionals. The two memberships, $600 and $150 respectively, survived the budget committee by one or two votes apiece.

However, the committee voted to scratch $500 set aside for the council's participation in the Urban Land Institute, an education and research organization that bills itself as the 'preeminent, multidisciplinary real estate forum' facilitating the exchange of ideas 'among local, national and international industry leaders and policy makers dedicated to creating better places.'

Councilor Jeff Gudman proposed that cut. Also at Gudman's request, the committee eliminated $300 for membership in the Natural Step Network, an Oregon-based group providing resources for communities interested in long-term sustainability. The organization's Natural Step Framework is also part of the foundation for the city's comprehensive plan update now under way.

One other item on the chopping block, $12,000 in funding for a sustainability intern, squeaked through this stage of the budget process. The intern has overseen initiatives such as community paper-shredding and recycling, block foam recycling and Sustainability Month activities over the past year.

Economic development

Gudman sought to trim $363,000 from the city's economic development and redevelopment efforts, suggesting the elimination of as many as three of the department's four employees.

He said the department made it with a single employee just fine when Bob Galante, retired last fall, held the top post.

'We did quite well over the years with one person,' Gudman said.

At the same time, the council has prioritized development projects this year, including Lake Grove Village, noted the mayor.

Hoffman said 'it's kind of ironic' the committee voted to increase funding to support Lake Grove redevelopment but also considered cutting funding to the department most closely linked to that initiative.

And Jane Blackstone, the city's economic development manager, recently mentioned the department could use an additional employee to help with outreach to businesses because it has been so busy.

Committee member Dave Berg suggested the department should focus more on economic development and less on property development.

The committee kept funding at proposed levels, but some council members suggested revisiting the idea in the future.

Planning department

Berg proposed shaving about $350,000 from the planning department by eliminating the equivalent of 3.2 full-time staff members; he said the idea came to him via several groups of citizens who felt that aspect of city government 'wasn't working very well.' He said the reduction would bring the planning side of the department more in line with building services.

At other times throughout the evening, councilor Olson suggested another cut could come from keeping the department's natural resources coordinator's position vacant; the former coordinator recently left the job to become Portland Mayor Sam Adams' sustainability adviser.

Meanwhile, council goals requiring work from planners have climbed; planning staff members made more than 30 presentations at city meetings over the past year. The department is involved in Lake Oswego's natural resources, historic resources and neighborhood planning programs. It reviews major development requests, processes permits and enforces city code.

Berg's proposed planning reductions didn't specify which of those activities should be scaled back.

'What don't you want our planners to do anymore?' City Manager Alex McIntyre asked.

The committee voted against the proposed planning cuts.

Golf course

The committee didn't approve any changes to golf course funding but considered options for dealing with the facility, which has struggled to break even over the years.

Olson questioned whether the city was too optimistic in budgeting a transfer of $133,000 for the municipal golf course, a smaller amount than the more than $200,000 it spent to subsidize the operation this past year.

'It assumes they are going to dramatically increase their revenue picture,' she said. 'I don't have that confidence.'

Committee member Kent Studebaker suggested closing the facility entirely, whether temporarily or permanently.

'It's losing money every year,' he said. 'It's just getting worse.'

However, Studebaker withdrew his proposal after the group discussed public involvement in the decision and the likely costs of maintaining that property, regardless of how it is used.

Change of direction

One of the biggest changes to emerge during the budget committee's review of next year's spending involves franchise fee hikes planned to support local schools.

The Lake Oswego City Council voted 4-3 last week to raise franchise fees for some private utilities to generate money for the local school district.

This week, that plan appeared poised for an appeal.

The budget committee, made up of the city council as well as citizen members, voted Tuesday to eliminate those planned fee hikes and reduce spending in other areas to come up with money for schools.

According to the council's previous discussion, customers of Allied Waste, Northwest Natural and likely PGE would see monthly payments climb an average $4 to $5 for the three services, or about $60 a year. Businesses would see even bigger increases on their bills.

The idea was to raise an estimated $775,000 for the Lake Oswego School District, adding to another $1.2 million the city has already scraped together - a total of $2 million.

The city would likely give the district a check in April 2012, City Manager Alex McIntyre said.

Companies such as PGE and Northwest Natural pay the city franchise fees - essentially rent for using public rights-of-way. State law limits how much cities can charge for franchise agreements with some utilities and how those costs are incorporated into customers' rates.

Set to take effect as soon as July, the hikes would affect all Lake Oswego residents, including those without children and those who send their kids to Portland schools, but they wouldn't affect residents of Tualatin, West Linn and Rivergrove whose properties might also be in the Lake Oswego School District.

The council only planned to keep the increases in place for one year in hopes of preventing bigger cuts in the school district, which is facing flat funding from the state.

Mayor Jack Hoffman and councilors Donna Jordan, Sally Moncrieff and Bill Tierney voted in favor of the plan. Councilors Jeff Gudman, Mike Kehoe and Mary Olson were opposed.

However, Tierney said he had second thoughts and supported a proposal by Olson on Tuesday to 'change the method with which we're going to pay the school district $2 million.'

Instead of using franchise fee hikes, the budget committee voted to reduce the amount of money dedicated to paying off the West End Building, eliminate an apparent duplicate expense related to streetcar planning and cut the equivalent of one full-time employee, with the last reduction spread across departments.

The council hasn't yet voted to repeal the fee increases.

Even so, Lake Oswego City Attorney David Powell said it was perfectly legal for the budget committee to approve a spending plan inconsistent with the council's policies.