April 11, 2003 11:00 pm

Budget hearings begin for the City of La Grande Monday evening and things don't look good. Mayor Colleen Johnson's April 5 column in The Observer gave the impression that the city will be long on requests and short on dollars to meet those requests.

One of the most noticeable programs that is missing from the 2003-04 budget is the urban forestry program. About $20,000 is earmarked to be transferred to the Parks and Recreation Department, but the rest of the program is gone, including the position of consultant Brain Kelly.

Some in the city may be ready to blame everything from the federal government and all its mandates to the state that is in such a cash crunch it is withholding any money from cities that can be legitimately withheld.

Some of the culprits contributing to the budget problems include PERS, the retirement program for most state, county and city employees. PERS will cost the City of La Grande $140,000 more in the coming year than in 2002-03. Another major expense is medical benefits that are growing at a rate so fast no one can keep up with them. The cost in next year's city budget is expected to rise by $119,000.

A third expense that is draining the city coffers at the expense of other programs is the Veterans Memorial Pool aquatic center. Proposed revenues for next year are penciled in at $90,000, while expenses are figured at $317,915, that doesn't include debt retirement of $198,000. That makes a cost of more than $400,000 annually to operate a swimming pool that is getting little use.

The ambulance service that was transferred to the city from Grande Ronde Hospital last year isn't creating the kind of revenue that was expected. In the current budget the city had earmarked revenues of $840,059, but it now estimates it will collect $664,000. Next year's budget proposes revenue of $665,000. Any hope that the ambulance service might help the city's funding shortfall won't be realized anytime soon.

When you consider the impact of PERS, the rising cost of medical benefits, the aquatic center deficit and the revenue shortfall from the ambulance, the city is down $800,000. That will be a huge chunk to swallow.

In the tradition of any organization that needs to feed itself, the city administration is proposing some revenue enhancements for the budget committee to consider: parking fees and permits; raising the cable and garbage franchise fees; resurrecting the idea from last year of instituting a water and sewer franchise fee of 5 percent and finally creating a business license. There isn't any mention of charging a more equitable rate to people who live outside the city limits for services such as the library, the sewer treatment facility or public safety.

There is little doubt that La Grande is in a pickle. Take a look at a copy of the budget at City Hall and come prepared to argue your point in meetings that start at 5:30 p.m. Monday.