Posted by: sweeneyblog | December 10, 2014

A Simple Walkthrough of the City of Bellingham Budget

On Monday, the City Council approved a new budget for 2015-2016. The Bellingham Herald put up an article documenting the changes between the initial proposal and the final approved budget (short answer: not much). However, I felt for most of us, a higher level overview would be helpful. Where does the city get a majority of their revenue? Where is it being spent? Getting a grasp on the generals are essential if we are to understand the specifics.

With that in mind, I’m doing another installment of “Keep It Simple, Sweeney!” where I walk through the city budget. If it is well-received, I’ll do a companion piece for the County. For this article, I’m working with the preliminary budget numbers, since I have more information about those and the changes by the council were not substantial.

As always, you can support the good work we do here with a donation by clicking here. 

City of Bellingham Budget

In total, the city takes in and spends around $480 million dollars every two years while keeping around $120 million in reserves. Here’s where that money comes from:

City Revenue by type

City Revenue by type

Revenues by type
Fines and Forfeitures $3,959,278
Licenses & Permits $5,292,274
Other Financing Sources $16,461,309
Non-Revenues $23,558,387
Intergovernmental $25,028,885
Interest & Misc $46,695,673
Taxes $177,091,395
Charges for Goods and Services $184,346,896
Total Revenue $482,434,097

As you can see, only about a third of our city revenue comes from taxes (property, sales, business taxes). The charges for goods and services category comes from providing water, sewer and ambulance services. Non-revenues are things like loans – they provide revenue but not really.

Okay, that’s how the money comes in. Where does it go? Comparing apples to apples, I look at the type of expenditure.

Expenditures by type

Expenditures by type

Expenditures by type
Salaries & Benefits $180,190,958
Supplies $20,000,416
*Interfund Supplies (0.7%) $3,548,962
Services $118,583,072
*Interfund Services $50,613,667
Intergovernmental Services $18,919,399
Capital $81,797,257
Principal & Interest $22,729,360
Total $496,383,091

Well, that’s not terribly helpful. Most of our city funds are spent on staff, services and capital budgets. Capital budgets are the big purchases a city has to make – land, buildings, major repairs. The intergovernmental services category includes the money the city makes from the county for use of the city jail.

But this does not give us a clear picture on WHAT we spend our city money on. For that, we have to look at the breakdown by city department of the money spent.

Expenditures by Department

Expenditures by Department

Expenditures by Department
Fire $46,952,365
Police $56,989,783
Judicial and Hearing Examiner $4,606,468
Parks & Rec $29,732,284
Library and Museum $11,631,738
Planning & Development $27,695,679
Human Resources $41,823,677
Finance $8,209,243
IT Dept $11,210,433
Legal $5,825,934
Mayor’s Office and City Council $2,740,180
Non-Dept $9,986,397
Public Works $236,473,222
Public Facilities $2,505,688
Total $496,383,091

For those of you following along with the official city budget documents, you will notice I merged a few departments for clarity’s sake (Museum and Library, Mayor’s Office and Council, etc). Right away, it becomes clear where we spend most of our money – Public Works, followed by Fire and Police.

If you were surprised by the high numbers for Planning and Development, consider the type of staffing needed there. Highly-trained professionals with advanced degrees. Also, they require a great deal of professional services (surveying, assessing, testing, etc) that they contract out to local providers.

Let’s take a closer look at that Public Works budget. Over the last four years, the Public Works department has had two employee moonlighting scandals (documented here and here) and ran afoul of the Roosevelt neighborhood association this year with their attempts to implement a c-curb on Alabama street. So I can understand them being a little touchy. I’m just using their budget as an example since it is the largest.

A good chunk of that budget is staff. There are 255 full-time equivalent employees working for the Public Works department. That includes 30 engineers, 35 utility workers, 42 treatment plant employees and 24 maintenance employees. Also, since they are building, shoveling and repairing things, their supplies budget is huge. They have budgeted 6.4 million on supplies for this budget, or to put it another way, more than we spend on the mayor’s office and the city council twice over.

The other half of the public works budget is capital expenses. Since they are undertaking large projects, their spending often takes the form of three year projects, big purchases and building improvements. Within these departmental budgets, you can drill down into specific funds (Stormwater Fund, Transportation Benefit District Fund) and get the list of specific improvements planned (a future article if people are interested).

In short, most of our city’s money is tied up in infrastructure. Either taking in funds for sewer and water services or spending money on roads, parks, buildings and streetlights. If this sort of thing interests you, there are plenty of sources for more information but I would start here.



  1. To better understand both revenues and expenditures, you really should break the revenues down by capital and general funds. The general fund is what is critical, and public safety is the largest–and growing–segment of that budget.

  2. What is our city’s carbon budget? What is our city’s water footprint?

    • Bellingham’s carbon and water footprint is probably higher than we think. It may be a fairly progressive town, but that doesn’t solve over-consumption. Besides, there is still some factories that pollute our air too much, and use too much water, and therefore shouldn’t be there. (But that’s another topic)

  3. John, those metrics are not currently incorporated explicitly within the City budget documents. I think it would be good to move towards an integrated governance model, where those and other metrics of social responsibility are also monitored and reported. Some background on this can be found here:

    The City’s Goals and Legacies offers a place to find some aspects of this information at present; that info is here:

  4. Bet you could find another juicy story in fines and forfietures. That $4mm is up from around $165,000 in 1992 (or maybe it was ’93). I noticed then that the budget showed no actual from the prior year. The estimated was entered very low, about a tenth of the actual, maybe $16,500. The Police Chief made me get four votes before he would disclose the actual, and it turned out they were spending it all without any council oversight. There is a massive multi-jurisdictional “pipeline” where law enforcement slushes a lot of cash from their seizure enterprise. Seems like business is booming. Who is watching the watchers?

  5. Thank you Riley!

  6. Why not some coverage of the Whatcom County Budget? That’s what would be really interesting.

  7. This is very interesting; thank you for making it simple and easily digestible Riley.

  8. Riley, here is a big problem.. you can not really track anything project by project. Try finding out how much money is spent on Lake Whatcom.. it is split among a number of accounts and few specifics are provided. What would make some of this more meaningful is a comparison to past budgets, to see overall trends. Are the costs for planning staff going up? Are we spending less on parks? How much more, if any, are we spending on police. Where are the costs for the waterfront tucked away and how does it raise costs over previous years. I try to look at the budgets and they never really show very much, or at least, I do not know what to look for.

  9. Excellent post, Riley. Thanks for clarification on non-revenues.

    Doubtless there are ‘opportunities for improvement’ as some posters have suggested. Perhaps they will followup by doing what they asked for, or at least hefting some of the work (research etc) and collaborate with you to produce further break-down graphs.

    • PS I’m satisfied with the high-level breakdown, personally. Others need/want more detail

  10. Thanks for getting this discussion going Riley.

  11. […] City of Bellingham adopted its budget this week, and Riley Sweeney put out a blog and pie chart ( showing where revenues come from and expenditures go. I think citizens should look into these […]

  12. […] his blog, Bona Fide Leadership, a deeper look at the City Budget in response to my recent article, A Simple Walkthrough of the Bellingham City Budget. As he pointed out with his trademark tact and diplomacy, “Sweeney’s analysis fails to […]

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