Kent council facing budget crunch

By Diane Smith Record-Courier staff writer Published:

Major cutbacks may be in store for the city of Kent as city officials worry over how to avoid a budget shortfall projected by the year 2002.

"We need to begin to look at some fairly significant decisions to raise revenue or reduce operating costs," City Manager Lew Steinbrecher told council at a work session Tuesday night. "We simply cannot afford to continue the patterns and trends you see before you."

Steinbrecher presented council with figures showing Kent's needs for capital improvements, such as street projects and building work, continuing to grow. Capital projects needed this year are estimated at $5 million.

But money available for capital projects is expected to fall far short of that, with only $2.5 million available this year. By 2002, only $432,043 would be available for capital projects, falling far short of the amount the city charter requires be set aside for capital projects.

When asked if layoffs or increased revenues would be in order, Steinbrecher said the answer will probably be a combination of both.

"We need to look at what services we have that we can no longer perform, or look at charging a fee for them," he said. "We clearly need to look at reducing services in an effort to tighten our belts so we can remain financially solvent over the next five years."

To some veteran council members talk of "belt tightening" evoked memories of the early 1980s, when council voted to lay off several employees, including members of the city's safety forces.

Councilman Ed Pease said when times are good, council tends to favor larger budget requests and face shortfalls later when trying to meet commitments made in better times.

"We're starting to look at the results of councils who have been very liberal about saying yes," he said.

But other council members said the advantage of having a five-year plan is the ability not to fill vacancies through attrition instead of replacing employees who retire, and implement other, less painful, cost-saving measures.

"When we had the layoffs in the early '80's, we had no warning," said Councilman William Schultz. "We had to do the layoffs right away. It wrecked the morale of the city. It was really horrible."

Councilman Jerry Fiala said council had not previously done much proactive budget planning, and working on a five-year plan is a positive step.

"It's a yellow light, not a red light like we had in the early 80's," he said.

Steinbrecher said council should continue to urge economic development, something that has been a high priority in recent years, because more industry could help the city's tax base.

Raising water and sewer rates might be an option, some council members said. Budget and Finance Director Barbara Rissland said sewer rates were last increased in 1994, and water rates haven't gone up since 1984.

Figures Rissland gave council show $147,785 available in the city's water fund for capital expenses by 2002, less than half of the $363,967 available for capital projects this year. And by 2002, a shortfall of $110,000 is projected in the sewer fund.

City Engineer Al Brubaker discussed a list of street-related capital expenses for this year which total $1.25 million. At the top of the list is a computerized data base detailing every street in the city, the thickness of the pavement, condition of the curbs and other information so the city can better prioritize its needs.

The cost of the system is estimated at $700,000.

Steinbrecher said the system would go a long way toward improving the city's image with developers.

"One of the problems we have dealing with the public is we don't know our own infrastructure," he said.

Other projects that could be built or designed this year include the reconstruction of Alley 3 in downtown Kent, installing the cul-de-sac at the end of East College Avenue, design work on the relocation of the Crain Avenue Bridge, improvements to Lincoln and Portage streets, and enhancements to the Triangle project, including brick crosswalks and decorative signs in the area of North Mantua Street, Gougler Avenue and West Main Street.

Last year, several business owners who own land along Alley 3 came to council last year offering to assess themselves for improvements to the alley and offering to pay 100 percent of special features, such as a brick streets and decorative lighting. But if the city purchases the parking lot along the alley, the city would absorb those expenses.

Steinbrecher said he would present council with more information so it could decide which projects should be done first.

In other business, Steinbrecher said the city should wait to move city offices.

City officials have talked for years about moving the remaining administrative offices out of the safety administration building on South Water Street and into one of the city's other buildings.

But Steinbrecher said he is not comfortable suggesting spending money to move city offices this year because of more pressing needs.

Council also briefly discussed a proposal by Dr. Joseph Occhino, who rents upstairs space in the building which houses council offices and has suggested taking over the remaining space in the upper part of the building. Occhino has proposed a long-term lease if the space is renovated to meet his needs. Service Director Dennis Missimi said it would cost up to $177,000 to renovate the space for Occhino.

Council urged Missimi to see if Occhino would be willing to make the repairs himself in exchange for lower rent.

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