Olympia council faces tough call on job cuts

OLYMPIA - City Manager Steve Hall will roll out his proposed 2010 budget to the Olympia City Council on Monday, and the news almost certainly won't be good for employees.

Hall expects to cut $4 million out of the budget, which he said will result in more layoffs. The City Council will decide the final budget in December, after several opportunities for public comment. City officials also are asking residents to use an online budgeting tool on the city’s Web site that will allow them to offer feedback on what the city should cut, and what it should keep.

“It’ll really force us to define what are the core services that the city delivers,” Hall said.

The council will meet Monday because Tuesday is Election Day. The meeting will begin at 7 p.m. at Council Chambers, 900 Plum St. S.E.

Hall declined to say how many jobs are at risk, saying he wants to inform employees first. Details of the cuts won’t be released publicly until Monday’s meeting.

The cuts could affect all city departments, he said.

Also Monday, the council will decide whether to declare a “substantial need,” which would allow the city to collect 1 percent more property tax revenue next year, per state law. The council is acting because of a citizens initiative that capped property tax growth at 1 percent, unless the rate of inflation is lower. Because there is a negative rate of inflation due to the faltering economy, the city couldn’t collect 1 percent unless it invoked the substantial need.

Hall said the declaration requires a supermajority vote of council members.

This would be the third round of budget cuts for Olympia. City officials cut 21.5 positions for the 2009 budget and cut $2.6 million more at midyear, including the city’s after-school programs at four middle schools.

One thing the city hopes not to touch with the budget ax is volunteer programs, Hall said.

“We’re going to try to hang on to those programs that help the community help itself,” he said.

He also said there are some programs that Olympians expect to have, such as public art and urban forestry.

Cutting budgets is a tricky science. City finance director Jane Kirkemo said the public doesn’t understand that some city revenue sources can be spent only on certain things. For example, voters approved a 3 percent utility tax increase in 2004, but that money can go only toward parks and pathways. Voters also approved a 20-year property tax increase to pay for a new fire station, which will be built next year in northeast Olympia.

Kirkemo said she doesn’t know how much revenue will roll in next year, further complicating matters.

Hall said the situation will change again if Initiative 1033 passes in the general election Tuesday, which would further restrict the city’s ability to raise money.

“If 1033 passes, we’ll be in a permanent recession,” he said.

Some city leaders have proposed asking voters to raise their taxes to pay for city services. But Hall said there’s no movement on that, and there’s a need to wait until the general election is over.

He added, however, “I think Olympians will want a chance to define their own future.”

Matt Batcheldor: 360-704-6869