Last year, the Bellingham City Council passed Bellingham's first ever biennial budget — a two-year spending plan that allows our city government to have a more consistent, predictable approach to providing services to the community. The City's mission is to deliver the best quality services possible, and each year when we prepare our budget and work plan, we let that mission guide our decisions.
As we enter into the halfway mark of the City's 2015-2016 biennial budget, I am pleased to report that the implementation has largely gone as planned. The biennial budget has allowed departments to create a work-plan that uses a 24-month cycle. On Oct. 12, I presented my proposed supplemental budget with mid-term amendments to City Council. With department heads, we continue to focus our efforts on implementing the work plan activities that will make the biggest differences and fulfill our Legacies and Strategic Commitments that were adopted by the council in conjunction with the public.
The City of Bellingham continues to face a challenging financial environment, although there is reason to be optimistic. Sales taxes continue to improve. The housing market and construction looks to be strong in the coming year. Unemployment is down to pre-recession levels, and fuel prices continue to be low. And even though the Canadian dollar is at the lowest level since 2004 and traffic across the border is down, we continue to see rebounding retail and car sales.
It is this fiscal environment that informs the budget decisions for our city. While revenue continues to be below expenditures by about $1 million, as it has been for the past six years, the budget has stabilized and we continue to be above our targeted 12 percent reserves goal. We are able to make strategic investments in public health and safety that I believe will have long-term benefits to the entire community.
Now that we are half-way through our two-year spending plan, I am recommending minor adjustments that emphasize fire, police, public health, economic development, and environmental protection initiatives. The following budget adjustments as noted below reflect continuing investments that I believe to be important even though there is a small increase in our deficit.
- An increase of $251,000 in our community paramedic program. I am optimistic that the investment in the community paramedic will help build capacity within our medical first-responder system and better community outcomes. I am appreciative of Council's support to continue this pilot program into 2016 and beyond.
- An increase of $53,000 for the Bellingham Public Library to pay for e-materials and processing, and administrative changes.
- In increase for Parks and Recreation in capital spending of $1 million for park and facility improvements, as well as minor administrative adjustments.
- An increase of $356,000 for the Police Department for additional downtown patrols, overtime expenditures, fleet, staffing, body camera and technology investments. Along with maintaining our commitment to social services and housing, I continue to advocate for greater investments in public safety. I believe the community policing model, as implemented by the Bellingham Police Department, will continue to improve the downtown and neighborhood experience for residents and visitors by focusing on crime prevention.
- Per previous Council direction, I am also proposing $250,000 for economic development incentives. It's important to remember that these funds will only be spent on qualifying projects, which will facilitate development in our urban villages and create more jobs and revenue.
- This budget continues to invest in water quality and stormwater projects and environmental clean-ups, including the Squalicum Creek Reroute and waterfront remediation.
- We continue to invest in our employees, which are our greatest asset. It is our commitment to provide a customer friendly atmosphere, and we have maintained employment and service levels.
I am excited as we head into 2016. My job as Mayor is to enrich the quality of our community development and to ensure public health and safety, maintain our roads and infrastructure, encourage housing affordability, and aid in job creation and a healthy environment. I believe that our 2015-2016 budget invests in those important services, and my proposed changes to the budget will enhance our ability to maintain a great level of service for our community.