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From Nordstrom to Costo: West Linn making cuts

City cuts staff hours, positions, events to fill $2M budget gap


Using an analogy of going from the luxe Nordstrom atmosphere to the streamlined basics of Costco, the city announced its next biennial budget.

From cutting the number of full-time staff to not funding community events, West Linn was forced to take some drastic measures to fill a $2 million shortfall in its budget, which was presented to the city council Monday.

“Change is a way of life in West Linn, and West Linn is at a crossroads as we deal with even more changes as signaled in this proposed biennial budget,” City Manager Chris Jordan stated in his budget message. “The crossroads we’re are at is alarmingly simple: Our revenues are flat or declining, and so we must change the way we do business.”

Though the city contends that the average West Linn resident will not see many changes, it is systematically stripping away services, adding more workload to existing staff and trimming what little fat remains in the budget.

“We need to strip away the ways West Linn has historically done business and reinvent the ways we support the fundamental government services that our citizens expect from their municipal agency,” Jordan wrote. “In a sense, we are transforming from Nordstrom to Costco. And that isn’t a bad thing.”

Jordan compared the two popular businesses by saying they both have great customer service, offer high-quality products and have a strong emphasis on taking care of employees. However, Costco can slash costs by using concrete floors and warehouse designs, rather than the upscale atmosphere of Nordstrom.

“In West Linn, I am proposing a budget that will revamp who we are and what we do, so we strip down our business operations to the warehouse level, removing any extras and focus on the nuts and bolts of running a municipal operation,” Jordan stated.

The proposed budget for the next two years is $89.94 million, in comparison to the 2012-13 budget of $84.32 million. Of that, $18.6 million is for capital projects, with a budgeted reserve of $10.3 million.

Fully funded in the budget are the city council’s 2013 goals, including economic development projects, aquatic community center steps, the Blue Heron project, the master trails and transportation system plans and the city’s centennial birthday celebration.

However, the list of items not funded this time around is much longer. The adult community center addition, Robinwood Station upgrades, an infrastructure resiliency assessment, McLean House upgrades, city hall safety improvements, water master plan projects, transportation system plan projects and municipal court security are all off the list and will not be addressed in the next two years.

Other events not getting city support this year include Neighbors Helping Neighbors and the Emergnecy Preparedness Fair, which will by entirely volunteer run.

“There is a very long list of items not funded in this budget. Were transitioning to make people understand we aren’t everything to everybody anymore,” Assistant City Manager Kirsten Wyatt said.

Driving factors in the city’s budget gap are the spike in PERS (Public Employees Retirement System) rates this year (up $400,000 a year), declining property tax income (down $200,000 a year) and increasing health care costs.

To compensate for the lack of revenues and increased costs, the city has asked a number of key staff members to cut their positions from full to part time, including the parks and recreation director, human resources director and the adult community center coordinator.  The chief financial officer will serve in a consulting role to the city of Milwaukie, resulting in intergovernmental revenues to offset a portion of  the cost of that position.

Positions completely eliminated include the communication coordinator, GIS (geographic information systems) specialist, senior planner, senior librarian, police captain and police officer. Two associate planners and an accounting specialist got reduced hours and a civil engineer was laid off. In all, the new budget eliminates another 8.5 full-time positions, bringing the city to a total of 124.33 FTEs. Also, employees will be asked to pay a larger percentage of their health care premiums, 10 percent.

For comparison, Milwaukie employs about 138 people, Oregon City 180, Tigard 254 and Lake Oswego 362 (which includes a fire department), according to the city of West Linn.

“We are still the leanest by far,” Finance Director Richard Seals said.

Because the city’s utility rates are capped and among the lowest in the metropolitan area, West Linn is limited on how to raise more revenue. One option could be a voter-approved local option levy. However, city staff members are wary of community support of such a measure, and it would just be a Band-Aid and not a permanent fix.

“Another way to get more revenue is through growth. This city has grown relatively slowly over the last decade,” Jordan said. “We need to look for opportunities within our boundaries to do the type of development the community would like to see.”

West Linn faced similar cuts during the last biennium. If the economic climate doesn’t change soon, the city will be forced into eliminating more services, such as reducing library hours and cutting parks and recreation offerings.

“I think your average citizen is not going to see a huge change in how they interact with the city,” Wyatt said. “I think some of your more enthusiastic citizens may see changes at city hall. Overall, we’re really proud of the fact that we only had one layoff in the budget and we are maintaining our frontline services. That’s all going to continue happening.”

Both the budget committee and the city council will have time to review the proposed budget. It will come back to the city council for approval at its June 10 meeting.

The proposed budget can be found online at westlinnoregon.gov/finance/bn-2015-proposed-budget.



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