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City wrangles with budget

Fire services vs. parks discussed

Park maintenance and mowing have been on the list of concerns voiced by citizens at recent City Council meetings. The impacts of city budget constraints are becoming more visible to the general public.

What may be less obvious are the machinations behind the questions about mowing and doggie waste-bag availability.

Wednesday nights in the Hood River City Council Chambers, citizens are gathering with city staff to hammer out a balanced budget for 2013-2014. The deadline to create that delicate goal is looming, with the new fiscal year set for July 1.

For those unfamiliar with the process, City Manager Bob Francis is charged to present a draft budget and message in early April to the budget committee, made up of seven City Council members and an equal number of citizens. This year, there are four unfilled citizen seats.

The committee must then review the proposal, ensuring it aligns with stated long-term city fiscal policy as well as pressing immediate needs. The group will then send a revised budget on to City Council for adoption.

City Council retains some ability to adjust the presented budget, but may undertake only limited changes, making the budget committee decisions an important influence in how the city will operate each year.

Over the last few weeks of meetings, Mayor Arthur Babitz and other committee members chose to eliminate projected revenue of $150,000 tied to the proposed annexation of Westcliff Drive properties, including the Columbia Gorge Hotel and the Vagabond Inn. With the uncertainty of this boundary adjustment, the group opted to seek cuts elsewhere instead of counting on this “questionable” resource.

To that end, and among many other decisions, the group has been seeking to find departmental “efficiencies,” i.e., potential areas to cut funding and, creative ways to manage increasing expenses. One such example from the May 1 meeting follows.

A significant discussion was undertaken tied to a proposal by Babitz that would shift $100,000 from the proposed fire and emergency services budget into parks and planning services; two departments that are feeling the split between high expected performance and limited personnel hours.

Hood River City Fire Chief Devon Wells, as directed, presented three plans that would eliminate that $100,000 from his departmental budget. He presented an overview of impacts tied to cutting fire and ambulance staff under a “Plan A” scenario.

The discussion led to both Babitz and Councilor Ed Weather’s inquiring about the “profitability” of the ambulance service and whether cuts to personnel would reduce revenues from that activity.

Weathers expressed discomfort at “subsidizing” other areas of the county through the ambulance service. Wells clarified that cutting services to non-city areas would actually hurt revenues and noted that elimination of services outside the city would require a private company to serve those areas.

As in previous meetings, Babitz returned to the concept of achieving “sustainability” in the department.

Wells reiterated at several points that the ambulance service has, in some years, returned more revenue than expenses. His view, however, is that fire and emergency services are just that, a service, and are not designed as a profit-making operation. Budget Committee Chair Patricia Gooch concurred.

In a follow-up email, Babitz explained his position. “I stated that I felt over the last few years the components of the General Fund had gotten out of balance. We decreased funding to a greater degree in other departments relative to fire.

“Last year’s budget made a big cut in parks, but we were told parks would still be kept in a reasonable state through cooperative work with Parks and Recreation. I don’t think it’s worked out that way – and I’m not just responding to the recent comments about mowing.

“Bob Francis’ proposed budget also removed funding for planning, even though most of our discussion at goal setting revolved around the need to better understand the makeup and use of our housing stock so we can make smart long term policy decisions.

“Therefore, I proposed we shift $100,000 in Bob’s proposed budget from fire to parks and planning.

“The parks $50,000 would be used to hire seasonal employees or contact services to partially restore park maintenance. The $50,000 in planning would restore the contracting budget so the planning department can continue to make progress on some of the big items we’ve given them: auxiliary dwelling units, zoning modifications and buildable lands inventory.”

Meetings continue on Wednesdays at 5:30 p.m. until the committee feels they have reached an agreeable draft. They are open to the public.

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