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WL budget process streamlined

A city council public hearing Monday will give residents an opportunity to comment on the proposed budget before approval

West Linn Community Services Coordinator John Atkins says it's tough not to use the 'M' word when talking about this year's budget process. He says it's almost a 'miracle' how the budget was presented to the budget committee and recommended to the city council - almost as presented.

'The committee focused on major issues, questions relating to reserves, taxes, overall spending and key priorities,' Atkins said of the new process, 'as opposed to wading into the minutia of line items.'

But to City Manager Chris Jordan it's just business as usual. Streamlining the process of planning the coming year's city budget, a goal of the city council, was accomplished through the efforts of Jordan, Finance Director Elizabeth Carlson and consultant Andy Parks.

Instead of (in previous years) a series of six or more meetings, some stretching beyond midnight, this year there was an hour-long meeting for Jordan to describe the budget and the new process, followed by two meetings of about three hours each.

The budget document is so streamlined that it doesn't even fill a notebook one-fourth the size of previous year's budgets.

The new budgeting process, Jordan says, returns the city to the proper format of a city manager form of government, where the council is a policy-making body and the budget committee allows managers to decide on line items.

In addition, the way the city deals with allocating its revenues and charging its expenses has been turned upside down.

In previous years, funds were focused on sources of revenue instead of programs or services.

'For example, (previously) police department funding would have come from three different funds,' Jordan said. 'This year, it's one fund.

'(Previously) the police chief's salary was allocated by hand into a computer into three different areas. That's a complete waste of time. This year, the police department will have all of its resources in the public safety fund, and that's where all of their time and energy and materials are charged to.'

The changes also will make the administration of city government a lot more efficient, Jordan said. But he's not finished with streamlining and making government more efficient.

'This is a fiscally-responsible budget,' he said, 'but in the next six months we are going to do a five-year financial plan that should lay a 'road map' to increase the contingencies and ending-fund balances.'

One of Jordan's goals is to improve the city's cash reserves, he said, and that is a work in progress that won't be realized this year.

'We're fairly confident in our estimate of this year's ending balance,' he said, 'but you can't be exact until you've done all the audits. The balance in the general fund will be about $200,000, but it needs to be a lot higher than that.'

Problems in the budgeting process - and in the finance department as well - have been caused partially by incorrect information given previous budget committees. For example, last year the panel was told the general fund would begin the year with more than $800,000 in reserves, when in actuality, Jordan says, there was only a little more than $200,000.

All of these changes in financial procedures and budgeting come at a time when the city's cash balance is slim due to the alleged theft of more than $1.4 million - a time when every penny must be managed well. It's also a time when the finance department is trying to complete delinquent audits, undergo rehabilitation, add new internal controls, hire additional staff and a professional manager.

Even if it is feeling the pressure of tight funding, the city is still proposing the addition of 3.6 full-time staff - a staff accountant, an associate planner, an information technology manager and a seasonal parks maintenance worker.

Jordan is predicting that the proposed budget - which comes before a city council public hearing Monday night - would prevent the inevitable.

'If the policies that are currently in place were being met,' Jordan said, 'the city would have a very difficult time making payroll until the tax receipts come in November. It would have to borrow, and that would cost taxpayers even more.'

Especially since the city's bond rating was recently either lowered or suspended by rating agencies.

One of the new policies (not to spend more than you receive), Jordan says, is being applied especially to those funds that are supported mainly by tax revenues.

Taxpayers will see higher taxes for the police levy, which has not been charging the full amount of the levy each year, according to Carlson. Instead of the current 48 cents per $1,000 valuation, the coming fiscal year's levy will cost about 75 cents. That increase represents a little more than $80 for a $300,000 home.

The combination of recovering from alleged embezzlement and service fees that are too low, Carlson says, will cause other city fees to rise.

'When you have a leak (theft) and you have reduced revenue not keeping up with inflation and the cost of doing business,' Carlson said, 'that adds up pretty quickly.'

As the budget committee wrapped up its deliberations, several members complimented Parks, Carlson and Jordan for the streamlined process.

'I'm very pleased with the look of the new budget,' said Mayor Norm King, 'the reduction in the number of funds and the way the (budget) committee functioned.'

Citizen committee member Bruce Tribken spoke to Jordan's goals with the new budget process.

'In my view, I have nothing but 100 percent faith in what you're trying to carry out,' he said. 'Even more importantly, I anticipate that your performance objectives and where you're headed with this is the right direction.'

Monday's council meeting and the public hearings on the 2006-2007 budget begin in council chambers at 7 p.m.