Another levy lift probable for Langley

Langley’s government is in serious financial trouble, but a proposed property tax levy could help restore stability to the city, city officials say.

Members of a special budget committee are concerned that unless the city can find a way to become more financially solvent, city hall could someday cease operations and shut down.

That’s the worst case scenario, however. A more likely outcome is Langley losing additional city hall workers from its already bare-bones staff to more stable jobs elsewhere.

Robert Gilman, a city councilman and budget committee member, presented an in-depth overview of the city’s financial footing at Wednesday’s Langley City Council meeting.

The budget’s general fund needs help, Gilman said. The general fund mainly pays for basic government services, such as police, planning and city hall workers.

Stagnant sales tax revenues, declining utility fees and voter-approved initiatives have cut into the city’s general fund budget, Gilman said. State and federal grants have dried up as well.

Combined, the shrinking revenue sources make predicting the future of the city difficult. But something needs to be done now, Gilman said.

“We won’t be served well by letting this one slide,” he said.

The budget committee has come up with a plan full of ideas to keep the city afloat. Most notable is a property tax proposal, which will go to voters Nov. 8 if the city council approves.

Committee members are recommending a 9.3 percent increase in property tax rates, which will provide an additional $160,000 per year to the city.

If passed, property owners will pay $1.83 per $1,000 of property value, rather than the present rate of $1.04 per thousand of assessed property value.

Budget committee members say the current rate is one of the lowest on Whidbey Island. And Gilman along with other committee members are hopeful that the additional money will keep the city operating until the economy recovers and the city can collect more sales taxes from its local businesses.

Sales tax provides 26 percent of the funding for the general fund.

The levy could halt the city’s trend in recent years of layoffs, funding cutbacks and tapping into reserve funds.

This year, the city budgeted cuts of about $42,000 in funding to the Langley Library, South Whidbey Youth Connection, city parks and elsewhere. Fearing an probable layoff, police officer Ben Kokjer resigned in March.

Cost-saving measures of those types are no longer realistic because the city employees now struggle to provide basic city functions, Gilman said.

If the city continues to cut staff, city services will continue to be put off and the city’s financial reserves will evaporate.

Many things have already been put off: street repairs, vegetation management, staff training, city code updates for planning and repairs to the marina. That’s meant potholes and cracks on streets and overgrown trees along city sidewalks.

With the city’s financial status uncertain, Gilman said there is the worry that employees may take more stable jobs elsewhere and the city will have to hire less qualified people. Or if the city hall has to shut down, Island County in Coupeville would need to take over essential government services.

The property tax increase should help keep that from happening, Gilman said.

Other ideas to help the city’s beleaguered budget are also on the table. Those include setting up volunteer programs, annexing developed and undeveloped land into Langley’s borders, and increasing revenue producing programs at city hall such as the current program of selling passports.

An increase in property taxes isn’t a sure thing.

Last year, city residents rejected a property tax levy lid increase from $1.16 per $1,000 of property value to $2.42 per $1,000 of assessed property value.

Mayor Neil Colburn said people need to change their view that all taxes are bad.

Taxes provide a way to fix the streets and sidewalks in the city where those taxpayers live.

“This is about Langley...this is us,” Colburn said.

The budget talk was extensive during the council meeting.

Gilman spent more than an hour providing a detailed overview to a nearly standing-room-only crowd of about 30 people. The plan itself was created by a six-member budget committee that’s been meeting since February to study the city’s budgetary problems.

The budget committee looked at several cost cutting measures, including cutting the three-member police department.

But the the expense of contracting with Island County or other police departments wouldn’t save the city money. City officials also want four police officers to provide a full-time police presence.

The presentation was warmly received, and the crowd applauded at the end of the presentation. Several in the audience also offered to form groups to spread the word about the need for the levy.

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