It was among the final issues brought up at last week's meeting of the White Salmon City Council, but its impact is potentially momentous: council member Brad Roberts called for a vote on overriding Mayor Roger Holen's recent veto of a budget ordinance.
The vote to override was 4-1, with council members Roberts, Timi Keene, Francis Gaddis, and Richard Marx voting to support the override and Susan Benedict voting to uphold the mayor's veto.
Mayor Holen appeared stunned the ordinance had been approved.
"This has brought the city to its knees," he commented.
Later, Holen said the council's decision was misguided.
"I characterize what the council is doing as irresponsible," Holen said. "They are not doing the city of White Salmon a favor by behaving in this manner. They are dragging everything out to the point that the city has ground to a halt. The total lack of trust is the root of all of this."
Holen vetoed the measure on March 1 because it would alter the way city funds could be used. The vetoed ordinance moved money from various city funds and into reserve accounts instead. Any expenditures from those accounts would need to be approved by the City Council via a budget ordinance.
Holen pointed out that the council meets only twice a month, and ordinances require two weeks of public notice before a vote can be taken. Any budget amendment the council passes then requires five additional days before it goes into effect.
"From my perspective, it's an incredibly stupid way to run the city. There is no money to work with," Holen said.
Council member Keene disagreed with Holen's assessment.
"It's important to recognize that a reserve account is similar to a family's savings account," Keene explained. "The council was concerned that items such as planting annual flowers in the park are not an appropriate expenditure of those funds."
As required by law, Holen had provided City Council members with a list of five reasons why he vetoed the budget amendment ordinance:
1) The budget should reflect reasonably expected revenues and expenses. To place moneys in reserve fund when they are likely to be expended during the current budget year does not reflect reality;
2) The ponderous and lengthy process of transferring money from reserve funds to current expense cripples the city and makes it impossible for the city to act on behalf of the citizens in an expeditious manner;
3) The use of the city budget as a means of micro-managing day-to-day operations violates the separation of powers outlined in RCW 35a;
4) Removal of funds likely to be used for emergencies, which cannot be anticipated with specificity but which we know, historically, do occur, gives an inaccurate impression of the likely cost of running the city;
5) The budget should be a tool to plan capital improvements for the ensuing year. The City Council has approval authority over all contracts entered into on behalf of the city, and therefore, retains control over the moneys.
With the override vote, the new budget arrangement goes into effect this week.
Susan Gookin, a former member of the White Salmon City Council who was in attendance at the March 15 council meeting, asked if the new ordinance meant there would be no money to fix the pool if something broke this summer.
Members of the council had differing answers.
"Sure we can," responded Marx.
"No, you can't," said Benedict.
After the meeting, Holen said the case of the swimming pool is a good example of the drawbacks to the new budget system.
"The reality is, the mayor does have some emergency powers, but what is an emergency? Kids not getting to swim? I don't think so," Holen said. "The only thing the staff and mayor can do now is take care of strictly day-to-day business -- accounts payable, payroll, that's about it."
Keene said part of the problem was that the council's suggestions had not been followed in the time leading up to approval of the 2006 budget.
"It's important to put this in perspective," Keene responded. "If a clerical error had not happened at the end of 2005, accepting the council's recommendations for inclusion in the 2006 budget, the process would have moved in a timely manner."
The lone council member to support the mayor's veto of the budget ordinance, Susan Benedict, said she believes the new plan hamstrings the city.
"If anything comes up, the city can't do anything about it until there is a meeting of the council and there is an amendment change," Benedict said. "It's way out of whack."
Benedict also used the swimming pool to illustrate her view of what the new budget ordinance approved by the council would mean for the city.
"Right now we can't do any work on the pool or anything we need to be doing at this time of year," Benedict explained. "It puts us on hold for any little thing. Anything we decide, any slight change, now requires at least a two-week process. There are a lot of capital improvements we can't do."
"The City Council has successfully hijacked the city. We now have one branch of government," Holen complained. "The City Council has all of the strings. Now the administration is on the dole, standing at the corner of Jewett and Main with a tin cup out."
Shirley Cox, the current chair of the city's 10-member Budget Committee, said the new budget plan significantly alters the way the 2006 budget will be handled.
"The 2006 budget will need to be looked at, revisited, and rebudgeted," Cox said. "It's very pressing."
Cox said the committee would have to figure out how to proceed.
"This amendment will be looked at significantly. We'll come back with recommendations to take care of concerns about the pool and other issues brought to light," Cox said.