Councilmember Godden left office on January 1, 2016.
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What to do when the well runs dry?

Topic A at the 2010 Association of Washington Cities conference, underway this week in Vancouver, WA, is how to handle city finances in lean times. What do cities do when resources are cut drastically, year after year.

To judge by conversations I’ve had with delegates from across the state, most resort to standard short-term remedies, typically furloughs and wage freezes.

One Eastern Washington mayor reported he’d been able to trim spending through a mix of layoffs and elimination of vacant positions. He added that, regrettably, there would have to be accompanying cuts in services. He said, “There seems to be a disconnect in peoples’ thinking. People don’t connect downsizing of government with the loss of services that they expect – parks programs, library hours, transportation improvements and prompt emergency response.”

The Yakima city manager related how one of his city’s councilmen wanted to undertake a new program and said triumphantly that he’d located a block of money that would pay for it. Said the manager, “What he didn’t realize is the source he’d identified was funding for a dozen blocks of street lighting. Was he prepared to turn the lights off at night?” The councilman thought better of his plan.

A Lake Forest Park councilmember reported that her city will be voting on Proposition One this fall. It’s the first time the city has proposed a levy lid lift to pay for operations.  If approved, it will cost the average homeowner $11 a month. She said, “I think most of the voters are willing to pay it. We’ve cut the budget three years in a row and there’s not much left to cut.”

Vancouver, the conference locale, was looking prosperous yesterday, even though the city – like many in the state – is suffering budget shortfalls. Said one city worker: “We’re getting ready for 100 layoffs and that comes on top of 70 layoffs in January.”

Earlier this week, The Columbian, Vancouver’s daily paper, announced that the city would not be funding bike and pedestrian programs, despite pleas from cycling enthusiasts. The city’s transportation manager did promise to try and look for grant money, even though the city hasn’t set aside any matching funds.

Another sign of tough times is Vancouver’s decision to charge $5 admission for Fourth of July festivities at Fort Vancouver Historic District. And that, it turns out, is better than last year when the city cancelled the celebration that for some years has featured fireworks fired from a barge on the Columbia River. Said one city official, “We got complaints from the Portland side of the river. But, since they’d never offered to help, we figured they didn’t have complaints coming.”