City passes budget; 3 employees fired, taxes hiked

    By Barney Burke, Leader Staff Writer

    Wednesday, December 19, 2007

    The Port Townsend City Council finally passed its 2008 budget Monday night, and there was plenty of pain to go around.

    Property owners can expect to pay a little more next year, and three city employees have been terminated to make room in the budget for a school resource police officer, more maintenance of city facilities, and a higher reserve balance in the general fund.

    But at the urging of some residents, library hours have not been cut any further, and the pool at Mountain View Elementary is funded for another year - mostly with city revenues.

    As for that tax increase on public utilities passed by the council in December 2006 - most of that revenue is earmarked for street maintenance and a police officer already hired.

    The final 2008 budget was passed 5-2 Dec. 17 with Geoff Masci and Laurie Medlicott voting "no." Their primary objection was a Dec. 4 vote to use some of the city's "banked" property tax capacity. That action will cost the owner of a $300,000 home about $43.40 more in 2008. Mark Welch, Michelle Sandoval, Catharine Robinson and George Randels voted to repeal a city law requiring an advisory vote on banked capacity and voted to use banked capacity for 2008.

    But on Dec. 10, all seven councilors voted to have City Manager David Timmons terminate three employees. Timmons did not disclose in advance whom he would terminate, but the rationale was to save about $167,085 in salaries plus $35,000 in across-the-board cuts to (1) restore the position of school resource officer, (2) provide $100,000 more for facility maintenance and (3) raise the general fund's ending balance to 5.8 percent in keeping with council policy.

    On Dec. 11, Timmons terminated three employees in the Development Services Department. Building inspector Rick Taylor, permit coordinator Jan Hopfenbeck, and permit technician Penny Westerfield were given until the end of that day to clean out their desks.

    All three have been offered two months of severance pay, and all three have filed grievances through the employee union, Timmons said this week.

    At the Dec. 17 council meeting, Timmons said it made sense to cut those three employees because building permit activity has declined. The council then approved a proposed agreement whereby Jefferson County's Building and Community Development department would augment the city's building permit and plan-check services, though most of it will still be handled by city staff. The estimated cost of county building service is $35,000, according to city estimates.

    Land-use permits and related issues would continue to be handled entirely by city staff, Timmons said.

    Like Timmons, Robinson and several other councilors expressed regret over the firings but also said there was no realistic alternative.

    "The money is not here," Robinson said, especially with the decline in development activity and looming impacts from the loss of the Steel Electric ferries.

    School resource officer

    Until about a year ago, Sgt. Troy Surber had been the city's school resource officer. He was reassigned to patrol due to a shortage of officers in the department and then promoted to sergeant. He is slated to restart that program if the school district comes through with a share of the funding, and another officer would take over the position later, Timmons said.

    The cost of restoring the school resource officer is budgeted at $85,000 annually. In effect, though, it adds one more sworn position to the department, which had gained another sworn position in December 2006 when the council doubled public utility taxes to fund one police officer and more street maintenance. However, Timmons said the city will look to back-fill Surber without hiring another officer.

    In February 2007, voters turned down a council-proposed increase in private utility taxes, some of which was earmarked for a new police officer. After that election, the council cut library hours from 54 hours a week to 46.

    Turbine project

    One expense that won't be repeated in 2008 is an attempt to generate electricity from a tidal power system in Admiralty Inlet.

    After learning that the Snohomish County PUD had applied for a permit from the Federal Energy Regulation Commission (FERC) to install tidal power turbines in Admiralty Inlet, the city hired consultants to file what was termed a "copycat application."

    Councilors Welch, Sandoval, Masci, Medlicott and Frank Benskin voted to pursue the tidal power permit last Feb. 22. Robinson and then-councilor Scott Walker were absent that night.

    FERC issued a permit to the Snohomish PUD on March 9, although that decision authorizes only preliminary steps and might not lead to the installation of about 450 underwater turbines.

    The city spent about $15,000 in 2007 on consultants who prepared the city's FERC application, city records show. That figure does not include city staff time.

    The city's total 2008 budget is $26,395,519, although that includes some inter-fund transfers. The general fund budget is $7,451,360, up $209,507, or 3 percent, from 2007.

    (Contact Barney Burke at


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