One of the things I appreciate about Wenatchee Mayor Frank Kuntz is his pragmatic approach and willingness to hit tough issues in a straightforward, no-nonsense fashion.
Kuntz delivered some sobering news as far as the city's long-term financial picture is concerned at a Downtown Rotary Club meeting last Thursday. His counterpart in East Wenatchee, Mayor Steve Lacy, gave a vastly different picture of that city's financial prospects.
The two cities are certainly on opposite trajectories. Wenatchee has virtually no room to expand and attract significant new businesses. East Wenatchee, by comparison, has plenty of room to grow and can offer businesses like car dealers more attractive land prices. We've seen the migration of businesses from Wenatchee to the Eastside.
What that means for Wenatchee is an expectation of declining revenues and increasing expenses. That's not a sustainable business model and it's going to force the city to make some really difficult decisions. "We're trying to figure out where we need to go from here," Kuntz told the service club members. It was encouraging to hear that he's planning to get some business leaders in the city together to provide input on how this might be creatively addressed.
The city has already reduced public safety costs significantly in recent years. The 54 people staffing the police department in 2007 has been trimmed to 44 today. That department will have to get even smaller, Kuntz said, although he said he's troubled by continually reducing public safety staffing. But at $100,000 of cost per employee, he said there really aren't any other logical choices.
"Where we're headed is not going to be able to provide what weve had in the past," Kuntz told the civic leaders. That future may indeed involve a radical shift in approach, such as moving away from having fire and police departments. Wenatchee could become a city that contracts those and other services out. Now that would be a radical shift.
Wenatchee's losses have been East Wenatchee's gains. Lacy said the city's revenue beat the forecast in many areas, including sales tax collections, which was up $405,000. Real estate excise taxes, gambling taxes, building permits and property taxes also came in above budgeted figures. The city's cash position in 1998 was in the $250,000 to $400,000 range. Today, it's at $3.6 million, although a portion of those funds are earmarked for capital projects.
The city's attention has been focused on managing growth and rebuilding city infrastructure, Lacy said. "We've got some plans to try to continue our facelift of our city," he said. They've upgraded Eastmont Avenue and Grant Road, repaving work is going to be done between 15th and 19th streets this year, and they are starting to fund efforts to improve the entrance to the downtown district to make it more aesthetically pleasing.
Relations between the cities have not always been productive, but Kuntz and Lacy have a strong working relationship and that cooperation bodes well for the cities working together in the future. To be a successful valley, both communities need to be financially strong. There are undoubtedly more ways that the communities can work together for the mutual benefit of our local economy.