As President Barack Obama seeks Senate approval for an $825 billion stimulus package to kickstart a recession-plagued U.S. economy, Durham Mayor Bill Bell told a packed City Hall audience Monday that, “in a sense, city government can provide our own economic stimulus for our communityif executed properly.”

The declaration, which came during Bell’s annual “State of the City” address, was emblematic of the four-term mayor’s tone: hopeful, but cautiously so, and watered down with plenty of qualifiers. It seemed Bell had made a conscious effort not to set the bar too highprobably not a bad idea, given that with his address came the announcement that Durham expected a shortfall of “between $24 and $40 million” in the fiscal year 2009-2010. (The range between those figures is three times greater than the city’s current shortfall of $5.5 million.)

Bell’s unscripted points of emphasis were mostly intended to note that he could make no promises. “For my part,” he said, veering from his prepared remarks, “it’s also unlikely that for the fiscal year 2009-2010, we will increase the property tax rate.”

After highlighting a bold light-rail initiative that would link Orange, Durham and Wake countieswhich, Bell was careful to note, would depend on state fundingthe mayor suggested that plans for a trolley system were in the works to link east and west Durham to the downtown. But, lest anyone get too excited, he paused to note: “I said ‘plan.’”

Included in the original text of his speech was the biggest “if” of all: After demanding better performance and efficiency of all city employees, he said, “Notice I said ‘our jobs’implied in that statement is that we will all continue to have jobs, which are no certainty.”

Bell also addressed the city’s green initiatives, a laudable concern that fell short of its potential. Quoting Obama’s call for energy independence through green energy technology, Bell said he was “calling on the administration” to require companies seeking city grants and incentives to indicate, “what, if any, are their green building initiatives.” But other than forcing companies to self-report how green their projects are, Bell did not actually call for green initiatives to be required of companiesonly that the city should encourage them “where we can.”

Closing his speech in front of a PowerPoint slide with ominous newspaper headlines like “Could foreclosures cripple neighborhoods?”, Bell made the most declarative statement of the night: “What’s for sure is that we must prepare for the worst.”