Cascade Locks budget counts on casino

By RAELYNN RICARTE

News staff writer

July 6, 2005

The two public agencies that serve Cascade Locks view the siting of a gambling casino in the industrial park as the “light at the end of the tunnel.”

Both the City of Cascade Locks and the Port of Cascade Locks have managed to minimize their expenditures for another year. But City Administrator Robert Willoughby doesn’t expect to hold off cuts to essential services indefinitely.

“We’re hanging on in anticipation. I think Cascade Locks has always been pretty resilient and had a can-do attitude — and that’s what gets us by,” said Willoughby.

The port and city both expect to double their bottom line within the first year that the casino owned by the Confederated Tribes is up and running. Although the two officials acknowledge the casino isn’t a “done deal” because it awaits federal approval, they also don’t see any other business growth looming on the horizon — or another industry stepping forward with an offer to pay $20 million for a new freeway interchange that will open up usage of 60 acres not used for the casino.

So, while they try to keep their optimism at a cautious level, Willoughby and Port Director Chuck Daughtry can’t help but dream about future possibilities.

“When the casino opens it will double our cash flow overnight, from $350,000 to $700,000 — plus it will create more economic opportunities,” said Daughtry.

Meanwhile, with only a casino proposal on the table, and an almost empty industrial park, the two agencies are dealing with reality.

The mantra at city hall has long been, “whenever we can avoid spending money, we do it,” and that approach has appeared to work well over the years. In fact, Cascade Locks became the first electric customer of Bonneville Dam in 1937, said Willoughby, because volunteers pitched in to lay the lines.

“We try to be real innovative and creative, and not just sit and whine,” said City Finance Director Kate Mast.

She and Willoughby have worked with the budget committee to hold the increase in the general fund for fiscal year 2005-06 to less than one percent, from $939,812 to $945,812.

That hike was necessary to cover rising personnel costs, including higher health insurance and retirement premiums for 14.5 employees.

The overall budget appears to have risen from $1.3 million to $1.4 million, although almost all of that increase factors in state and federal grant funds.

The city is hoping to score money to construct a new emergency services building, underground its South Bank utility lines and upgrade the comprehensive land-use and transportation plans.

“I put all the grants in the budget that anyone thinks they are going to apply for.

It might inflate the budget a little but it allows us to be ready to go,” said Mast.

Willoughby said because all department heads are on the watch for savings opportunities, the city has been able to carry over a balance every year for more than one decade. And that helps the municipality weather any financial storms that come up between budget cycles.

“We’re ahead of some cities because we had to start economizing more than 10 years ago and we’ve gotten good at it. We are the only community within 30 miles of Portland that didn’t have an expansion in personal wealth and the tax base in the ’90s. Our economy has stayed flat since the late ’80s,” said Willoughby. “I guess we’re hanging on because the whole place works as a team.”

The port budget stayed pretty static also this year, with a $600,000 increase that is mostly tied to one large pending grant.

The overall budget rose from $3.6 million to $4.2 million, mostly to accommodate $500,000 in federal dollars to renovate the narrow underpass into Port Marine Park.

Another $100,000 was needed to pay for higher personnel costs. That situation has Daughtry worried since the port was forced to cut the benefit package for its 76 full- and part-time workers this year.

“Things are getting more expensive and I don’t see an end to it. Every year it gets worse and the coverage gets less,” he said.

On a bright note, Daughtry anticipates that sternwheeler cruises will net the port $200,000 in revenue this year. Last year the port missed out on about $150,000 when the paddle wheel replica broke down for 10 days in the middle of the tourist season.

“Not only did we lose the cruises on those days, but there were people calling to buy tickets and we couldn’t guarantee what day we were going to be back up and running,” he said.

He said the port is generating more money from the sternwheeler since it began operating solely out of its home port, and not spending the winter months in Portland.

“This is the place that we need to be, we need to draw people out to the Gorge,” he said.

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