Big debts for small projects?

Don’t go into debt for the small stuff.

That was the message residents sent to the City Council on Wednesday in reaction to a nearly $1.8 million slate of mostly small capital projects slated for borrowed funding.

“You can’t keep borrowing your selves out of a hole because you’re going to get deeper and deeper,” said island resident Liz Murray.

The proposed spending plan includes road improvements, city dock fixes and construction of a Waterfront Park bathroom. Initially presented by the city finance department as a $1.5 million plan using council-approved bonds, the council added $250,000 for the initial costs of a senior center expansion.

Former city councilman Bob Scales blasted the council for the additional $1.6 million in interest and fees it will incur over the next 20 years to pay for the bonds.

He stressed that bonds should be used for “major projects” that require much more cash than the city may have on hand. Open space purchases or a proposed new police and court facility are logical bond beneficiaries, he said.

“But going into debt for a $14,000 (street improvement) project? That’s crazy,” Scales said.

Scales questioned why so many of the plan’s items would be funded with bonds when he and other councilors voted to fund them with cash last year.

“That was a choice made by the new council,” said Finance Director Elray Konkel, in response to Scales’ question. “They decided to fund other projects with cash,” sending the previously cash-funded items like road repairs and other fixes into debt financing.

The new council, which includes three members who took their seats in January, opted to fund $300,000 in sports field improvements, $160,000 in police vehicle replacements and other items with cash initially allotted for the projects debated on Wednesday, according to Konkel.

Some councilors defended the overall budget, stressing that it was balanced after $5.2 million in cuts to capital and operations costs.

“This council has worked very diligently,” said Councilwoman Hilary Franz. “It’s been hard to look at citizens and say ‘your project will be cut.’”

Councilman Chris Snow said the city must pass its bond-funded plan to shore up a city budget that has already suffered a $2.5 million shortfall.

“We have no choice but to pass this bond,” he said. “It would be irresponsible for the council not to pass the bond issue and throw the city’s finances into serious disarray.”

Other councilors balked at the bond-funded plan.

“What we’ve seen in this bond has never been seen before,” said Council Chairman Bill Knobloch. “It’s reactive management. I cannot support this bond.”

While Knobloch and Councilwoman Debbie Vancil strongly support the senior center project, both urged the council to reduce spending.

“Yes, we’ve made cuts, but we need to make more,” Vancil said. “We need to sell property, cut operations and stop new spending.”

The bond-funded capital plan is slated for approval on Sept. 10.