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Budget Blowup 

by KEVIN TAYLOR & r & & r & & lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & S & lt;/span & pokane Mayor Mary Verner made her first State of the City address to the City Council last week with a sharp in-house metaphor for how unexpected events can slice up even the most meticulously planned local budget.

The second sentence in her 12-page report reads: "Let's start with a little show and tell. [Roll in cart of intake fan pieces.]"

Verner read the first part of the sentence and turned from the podium, expecting the parenthetical second part to come trundling down the aisle but had to ad-lib when an aide gave the wave-off that the metaphor wasn't going to arrive on cue.

Just as the sub-prime mortgage frenzy has blown up into a national banking and investment crisis, Verner pointed to the city's own decision to delay an expensive upgrade of a cooling fan, only to have it literally explode into a $500,000 emergency.

The City Hall heating, cooling and ventilation (HVAC) systems, installed in 1980, have been powered by a single massive intake fan that has strained for a generation to move air throughout the seven-story building. Officials knew it was old, but replacing it is expensive and complicated and the decision was made to push it to 2009.

Dennis Hubbard and the intake fan have aged together in the mechanical spaces behind the walls of City Hall. Hubbard, 61, has worked for the city since 1985 and has been the building engineer at City Hall for the last decade.

"We're both getting old," he says of the fan. Still, "the Friday before it come apart, if you asked me about it, I would have said it was running as good as it had ever run."

Kind of like Wall Street reaching record highs this year.

The fan exploded on Sept. 21, likely through metal fatigue. The sheet-metal housing around the fan contained the potentially lethal larger pieces, but city officials express relief that no one was in the room when the metal fragmented.

The City Council approved an emergency $500,000 this month to start work on a "fan wall" of nine smaller, more efficient fans that had been part of next year's Phase II of the HVAC remodel.

And even though the pieces of metaphor were not available for her address, Verner made her point that a disintegrating national economy means she'll be presenting a cautious budget to the council. One that leaves room for catastrophe.

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