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White Salmon Faces Budget Crisis

Bankruptcy not immenent

The comments about the state of White Salmon's budget situation have been dire. From the mayor-elect of White Salmon to the mayor of Bingen, the city's finances are generally considered to be a mess.

Cases in point:

"It is horrible," said Mayor-elect David Poucher. "We are $100,000 off in current expenses so far this year in money we don't have."

"Do I think we're going to file bankruptcy? No. but this is a time bomb waiting to happen. We haven't had the figures, and the figures we do have we don't trust," said Shirley Cox, chair of the city of White Salmon's 10-member budget committee.

"If White Salmon fails and goes down the tubes, it would have a very big impact on our community," said Bingen City Council member Terry Trantow.

"They are in somewhat of a serious situation," said Bingen Mayor Brian Prigel. "I'd hate for them to continue on the path they're on now."

Last week, with White Salmon's fiscal situation at a danger point, the city of Bingen offered to share its clerk-treasurer in a bid to stop the downward spiral -- and White Salmon gratefully accepted.

An agreement between the two cities called for Bingen's clerk-treasurer, Jan Brending, to work no more than 15 hours per week for White Salmon. Brending will assist with amendments to the city's 2007 budget and help prepare the 2008 budget, among other duties. The agreement lasts through Feb. 29, 2008.

At the Nov. 6 meeting of the Bingen City Council, council members voted 4-1 to allow Brending to assist at White Salmon City Hall until the budget process is resolved.

Mayor Prigel explained that the agreement came at the request of White Salmon Mayor Francis Gaddis.

"Essentially, Mayor Gaddis requested an assist from Jan, to help them get a handle on their accounting and their controls so they would feel confidant when they went into budgeting. They need to know how much money they have and whether they can meet their obligations," Prigel explained.

Prigel pointed out that White Salmon's clerk-treasurer, Eric Greene, had resigned the week before.

"They need assistance until someone is on board and hopefully up and going," Prigel said.

Prigel added that he was not surprised to see Greene's resignation.

"The council members there have not had confidence in the numbers they were getting, and there was a reason for that," Prigel said.

During the debate about whether the city should allow Brending to help the city of White Salmon, Bingen City Council member Tim Hearn said he questioned allowing a Bingen employee to take time away to help another city.

"I don't give a damn about White Salmon or what their problems are," Hearn said.

Council members agreed their primary concern had to be for the city of Bingen.

"We hired a deputy clerk because we need help," said Sandi Dickey, who cast the sole opposing vote on the deal. "Our city clerk needs to be here. I'm not happy our city clerk is up working in White Salmon."

In response, Brending said she would limit her work in White Salmon to between 6 a.m.-8 a.m., to ensure she would be available to cover her duties in Bingen. She added that she would also be available for telephone contact with White Salmon's staff during the day.

"I need to be here doing Bingen's work. I have a job to do here and they need to get someone hired," Brending explained. "But whoever is hired will need assistance with software and the issues they are facing. I looked seriously at those issues. My time helping there needed to be very limited. Their mayor clearly understands that. I have my own duties, and this cannot interfere with that."

Brending added that what happens to White Salmon affects Bingen as well.

"Whether we like it or not, White Salmon's financial status has an impact on us, directly or indirectly. They have serious issues they need to resolve immediately," she said.

The city of White Salmon will reimburse Brending for her time at the same level of salary and benefits she receives from the city of Bingen.

However, council member Betty Barnes questioned whether it was prudent to make a deal during an election campaign.

"Is it fair to be doing this when there may be a new council and new mayor coming on board?" Barnes asked.

Mayor Prigel responded that whoever is in office, they are going to need help.

"To let them flounder would be a disservice to them and us as well," Prigel said. "Many would like nothing more than to see White Salmon fail. I'm not one of them."

On Nov. 7, the city of White Salmon voted unanimously to OK the deal to bring in Bingen's clerk-treasurer to help White Salmon through its budget troubles.

"Everybody is frustrated right now," said Cox. "We're without a clerk-treasurer and without the numbers to put together a budget so we can adopt something by the end of the year."

Cox said she believes the city needs to hire an outside, independent consultant.

"It could be months before we fill the position with someone who knows municipal accounting," Cox said. "We haven't had a really qualified person in the clerk-treasurer's position since Kelly [Ingraham] left. It will cost a bit of money, but we need to get someone in there who can go back several years and clean this bookkeeping up."

According to Cox, the cause of the city's troubles was pretty basic: Not enough money, too many expenditures.

Cox added that the budget committee did not believe it could rely on the figures it has seen to date.

"I'm very reluctant to believe anybody right now," Cox said. "We haven't seen quarterly or monthly reports. We're in dire straits. We need to get a handle on everything."

Council member Timi Keene said she believed Brending would provide a boost.

"Jan has been a big help and will continue to be," Keene said. "We're fortunate to have someone so close by and who knows the software we use. It's a very complicated program, and to have someone within a mile who knows it is pretty fortunate."

Brending's first priority will be to develop a projected revenue for 2008, and to provide department managers with an accurate accounting of salaries and benefits of their departments.

White Salmon city officials said they appreciated the help from Bingen.

"I'd like to say thank you to our fair sister city of Bingen for helping us out," said White Salmon's city attorney, Deborah Phillips.

"Yes, very much so," added Mayor Gaddis.

David Poucher, the incoming mayor, said balancing the city's budget would not be easy.

"We may be using Draconian methods for now, then come back to the citizens next year and ask, `where do you want to go with this?'" Poucher said. "And we want to fill the clerk-treasurer position as fast as we can."

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