Langley budget grows, worker ranks thin at city hall

It’s lean, but not as mean, as this year’s budget.

The Langley City Council will hold its first public hearing Monday on the city’s 2012 budget. And though the Village by the Sea will have a plumper pot of money to pull from, city officials have built a budget that includes higher salaries but fewer workers at city hall.

The total budget for 2012, at $5.5 million, is 8.75 percent higher than this year’s. A large cash carryover balance is one of the main reasons why, said City Treasurer Debbie Mahler.

The rise in the general fund — the pot that pays for general government services, such as police, parks and planning — is also modest, and represents a 5-percent increase.

Even so, Mahler said the general fund is less than what the city had five years ago.

“Actual expenditures in the general fund are lower than 2006 levels,” she said.

“We made an awful lot of cuts this year,” Mahler added.

Some city departments will continue to have lower staffing levels next year, including public works, finance and the police department, which is budgeted for three employees (down from four). The position of a mayor’s assistant has been zeroed out. And there will be one planner on staff, not two.

Though an earlier draft of the budget contained funding for a fourth police officer, the money was removed from next year’s spending plan after a recent council budget workshop. Acting Police Chief Randy Heston said the fourth officer is needed because the department is stretched thin; calls for service have increased, and officers have had to work 21 days straight to cover vacations. Langley has relied on a four-person department for 15 years, but that ended when former chief Bob Herzberg retired earlier this year.

Under the draft budget, the city’s staffing level will drop from 13.4 full-time employees to 12.2 next year, the lowest number of employees since Neil Colburn was mayor in 2007.

The budget also includes money for a broad array of capital projects next year, including the first phase of the reconstruction of Second Street, the reworking of the CMA parking lot to make it into a part-time park-and-ride lot, the Wharf Street widening project, and new paving on Cascade, Camano and Sixth streets.

The budget has been balanced, in part, by a 1-percent increase in the city’s property tax levy. Combined with the value of new construction, the levy is expected to bring in $383,240 next year.

Even with the increase, Langley doesn’t plan to get much more than what was expected this year in total property taxes. The 2011 city budget set the levy at $383,129 — just $111 less than the estimate of property taxes that was plugged into this year’s budget.

That said, Mahler said she doesn’t expect the city to hit this year’s target, and property tax collections will likely come in $8,000 or $9,000 less than what was budgeted.

“We’re not getting what we budgeted in 2011, we’re getting less,” she said.

The city is also making a conservative estimate for sales tax revenues next year; up just $3,000 from this year’s level to an estimated $285,000 in 2012.

“We budgeted revenue really conservatively,” Mahler said. “We don’t want to count on money we might not get.”

“We try to budget real conservative on revenue, and high on expenditures.”

Sewer and stormwater rate increases are also included in the 2012 budget, though Mahler said she expects utility rates to come up during Monday’s budget talk. Candidates for the Langley City Council, and mayoral candidate Larry Kwarsick, have repeatedly said the city’s current rate structure, which contains a substantial base fee that many in town feel is unfair, should be reviewed and changed.

“They will be a topic of discussion,” Mahler said of utility rates.

Though building permit fees are expected to drop from the $20,000 budgeted this year to $14,600 in 2012, Mahler said the estimate isn’t based on the expectation of lowered permit activity.

Instead, Mahler noted that the city’s planning staff has been working on a revised permit rate structure that would lower fees. The hope is that lower fees will spur development in Langley, which will be better for the economy as a whole.

“It costs a whole lot more to build a house in Langley than in the county or Coupeville or Oak Harbor,” Mahler explained. Lower permit fees may change that.

“We tend to think that it will encourage more building right now.”

Though staffing levels will drop at city hall under Mayor Paul Samuelson’s proposed budget, there is a bright spot for city workers.

The draft budget includes a 3.7 percent cost-of-living increase for city staff, the first raise since 2009.

In the 2011 budget, the council cut the pay of city workers, and some employees lost bump-ups in pay that the council had approved in previous years.

The city council will hold public hearings on the budget on Monday, Nov. 7 and Monday, Nov. 21.

Mahler said if agreement is reached on the budget at the council’s second meeting in November, a first reading could be held and the budget could be approved Dec. 6.

The preliminary budget is available for public review at city hall, 112 Second St.

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