‘City Chat’ focuses on OS budget

It’s that time of year: beach days, late-night BBQs, and initial budget chats. The city of Ocean Shores is already looking toward its 2023-24 biennium budget, shared Ocean Shores Mayor Jon Martin and Finance Director Angie Folkers at a “City Chat” meeting on Wednesday, July 6.

“The budget in my mind is one of the most important things the city does, because it really sets the goals and the accomplishments we want to do as a city,” said Martin.

According to Martin, the city, from a financial point of view, is in “pretty good shape” and is prepared to address a variety of local issues that have historically been put off amid high debt payments and a relatively low balance in the general fund.

The city has been consistently paying off its debt and is now experiencing a higher general fund balance due to a variety of economic factors, including increasing property tax revenue.

“Some of the issues that have been coming up to us are some of the things that the city maybe should’ve done 10 years ago, but didn’t, so we’re playing catch-up,” he said.

Additional firefighters, police personnel, sidewalks, and maintaining the fresh waterways are some of the issues that the city hopes to address with the next budget.

Fire department staffing is particularly important to the safety of Ocean Shores, which does not have a private ambulance service. Urgent care patients are therefore brought to the hospital by the local fire department, which leaves the area vulnerable as the firefighters and first responders are taken out of town.

Local hospitals, such as Harbor Regional Health, have often gone on divert since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, especially amid their own staffing shortages. OSFD staff has been taken as far as Elma and even Olympia transferring patients, while Ocean Shores fire stations have been left understaffed for hours and unable to meet fire response staffing levels during calls.

The future of fire and EMS services was certainly on the minds of the Ocean Shores residents in attendance at Wednesday’s meeting. While the city has indicated that finding solutions to the scarcity of emergency medical personnel is a priority for this upcoming budget cycle, contract negotiations with the local firefighter’s union may be hindered by recent clashes with the city over pay and staffing.

“Between the fire budget, the EMS budget, and the debt payment on the fire station, it’s about 14 percent of our entire city budget, so it’s a big number and that’s why we’re going to be talking about that,” Folkers said.

The city is currently conducting an EMS rate study that will help determine adequate funding rates for the department, as well as provide staffing recommendations. The future of the South End Fire Station also remains an issue for the city, as insufficient staffing of the dated station has hindered an effective response system in that area.

According to Martin, there will be at least two more citizens’ meetings to discuss the priorities of residents when it comes to the budget. Interested residents are also encouraged to fill out a brief survey located on the city of Ocean Shores website.

“We have a lot of stuff that’s going on, so our priorities are going to be what you give as feedback to us and what the council approves and doesn’t approve,” said Martin.

The city’s budget proposal to council must also include plans to obligate nearly $2 million in ARPA (American Rescue Plan Act) funding the city received to alleviate COVID-related financial deficiencies.

Upon receiving the first tranche of funding, the Ocean Shores City Council approved using $50,000 to cover low-income impacted residents through utility billing. The city was just notified of receiving the second tranche to the tune of approximately $906,000. According to city Grant Coordinator Sarah Bisson, the ARPA funds must be obligated by Dec. 31, 2024, and must be liquidated two years later.

The city has a broad range of issues it may apply the funding to, including supporting the businesses, nonprofits and individuals financially impacted by the pandemic.

Budget conversations will continue at the Monday, July 11, regular meeting of the Ocean Shores City Council. The meeting will take place at the Ocean Shores Convention Center beginning at 6 p.m.