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Mercer Island City Council Approves $6M in 2011-12 Budget Cuts

Pool agreement also reached on Councilman Steve Litzow's final night on council, before he assumes his state senate seat in Olympia.

(Ed. Note: Due to an editing error, the headline was changed to reflect the total value of cuts for 2011 and 2012 combined)

 priorities were in full focus Monday night as it passed two measures adopting a final biennial budget for 2011-2012 and agreed to approve the  as new operator of the Island's only .

In its most contentious issue that, Mercer Island City Council adopted approximately $6 million in projected spending cuts in passing the city's biennial operating budget for 2011 and 2012.

The vote was also City Council member 's swan song; he has already assumed his role as state senator representing Mercer Island and the 41st District in Olympia. Litzow moved and voted to approve the budget in his last act as a council member. City staff congratulated him with a cake and several awards for his service to the city.

"It's truly been an honor to serve," he said. "I hope to take that collaborative spirit and joy of serving our citizenry down with me to serve down in Olympia."

The vote was a near-unanimous 5-1 in favor, with Councilman Mike Cero the sole dissenting voice. Councilman Dan Grausz was absent.

"In my nine years on Council, this is the first time our values have been about saving things, and not adding," said Mayor Jim Pearman. "The discussion has been respectful … and members are very passionate about our beliefs."

City Finance Director Chip Corder started with the positives, stating that city revenues had improved over the prior year and that sales tax, beginning in August had shown continued improvement. Development fees, permits and real estate excise tax revenues — the Achilles' heel of city finances in the current recession — had all improved significantly.

But in order to balance the budget, Corder laid out the final changes — mostly cuts — made to the budget by both City Hall and the Council. Proposed discretionary spending from the city's General Fund, which funds most day-to-day operations of the city, fell about 5 percent, from a two-year total of $48,134,527 to $46,190,072. Overall, the proposed city biennial budget dipped below $100 million for the first time in five years. The city also eliminated several authorized staff positions, including pink-slips for three full-time staff members and some contractors, and pushed other positions to part-time. The city's Fire Marshal, a streets Right of Way maintenance employee and the City Transportation Manager positions were eliminated. The city is now currently authorized to employ 182 full-time equivalent poisitons—one of the lowest per capita on the Eastside.

But the city's deepest cuts were avoided by tapping the city's "rainy day" fund, amounting to more than $600,000 over two years.

Council member Cero questioned the wisdom of using a significant amount of the reserve fund during the recession, but Corder said he felt it was necessary, given the severity of the economic slowdown.

"Keep in mind that — even including Council member (El) Jahncke — this is the worst recession in our lifetime," he quipped.

Further cuts were tabled Dec. 6 after the council agreed to impose a year-long ambulance transport fee, beginning on a temporary basis from Feb. 1, 2011, through Jan. 31, 2012. The ambulance fee, charged by Mercer Island Fire Department ambulances, would apply only to insured patients needing basic life-support transport to hospital. The fee is expected to raise approximately $288,000 before it expires.

Cero objected to several utility and development-related fee increases, mostly passed on from a county increase. He also worried about the new ambulance fee, upon which he wagered to shave his head if the fee actually expired in 2012.

"This is going to have some long-term tax implications," he said.

Much less contentious was the authorization of an agreement with the school district to replace Mary Wayte Pool operator Northwest Centers. The school district said it would assume control of running the pool and would hire a new operator, Mercer Island-based non-profit Olympic Cascade Aquatics, run by residents Alice Godfred and John Walker. They currently manage the Mercerwood Shore Club pool facility and have about 40 employees, and would likely retain most of the staff at Mary Wayte.

A contractor's report said approximately $60,000 in repairs needed to be made immediately, but otherwise the pool appeared to be in good shape. The city approved a two year agreement and could last up to five years, with the city appropriating $100,000 to the school district to keep the pool open to the public. Another $25,000 would be held in a reserve capital improvement fund, should it be needed after a pool repair reserve of approximately $70,000 and a school district reserve of $25,000 was exhausted.

The deal still needs approval from the school district, which will take up the pool agreement at their Dec. 16 board meeting.

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