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Truth test: Condon’s new ad on water rates

Fresh off the City Council’s vote to raise water rates for next year, Spokane mayoral candidate David Condon released a new commercial this week attacking that decision.

The ad so far is running only on YouTube, but he said it likely will hit TV airwaves as the election draws closer.

Here, we truth test the ad in what will be an occasional series examining candidate claims headed into the November election.

Condon, who faces incumbent Mayor Mary Verner said water rates are one of the biggest complaints he’s hearing as he knocks on doors.

Claim: “Water rates have gone up and she’s planning to raise them again.”

Truthfulness: Generally true

Analysis: Water rates in Spokane have actually been quite steady in the last decade and continue to be lower than many other cities in the Northwest. Last year, the City Council approved a water rate structure that changed how bills were calculated. Some people’s bills have gone up, but most are expected to go down, at least over the course of the year. Verner signed the ordinance making the change, which was not meant to raise more revenue. Indeed, it appears that that the new rates actually will lower revenue this year. That said, Verner had asked the council to approve a rate change to increase water revenue, but the council rejected it. This month, the council did approve an increased water rate that will raise water consumption fees by 16 percent in 2012, though the average bill for indoor usage will only go up about 4 percent.

Claim: “Car tabs increased by $20”

Truthfulness: True

Analysis: Those $20 tab fees started to be charged this month. Verner could claim that she technically didn’t increase the tab fee since state law on car tabs doesn’t give her a say. However, Verner supported the creation of the city’s Transportation Benefit District, which is the mechanism that allowed the tax, and she later advocated for the new fee.

Claim: “What’s all the money going for? Salary increases at City Hall.”

Truthfulness: Leans toward false.

Analysis: The use of the word “all” is the problem. There certainly are other costs going up. One of the biggest problems is the spiraling costs of health care. Large chunks of utility fee increases will be used for infrastructure upgrades, especially in the proposal the council will consider next week to raise sewer fees.

Claim: “Mary Verner’s own staff budget increased by 30 percent.”

Truthfulness: True, depending on how you define the mayor’s budget

Analysis: Comparing the entire mayor’s budget in 2007, the last year of Dennis Hession’s administration, with 2011, the mayor’s budget has increased by 29 percent. Verner’s 2011 budget, however, is still less than the budget from 2005, the last year of Jim West’s leadership. Much of the increase in the total mayor’s budget has come from lobbying expenses. The mayor’s full budget includes a lot of items that may not seem specific to the mayor. Mayor Jim West funded an economic development position in his office that later was transferred to another part of the city budget, for instance. That’s why it might be more fair to consider the subsection of the mayor’s budget that is specific to Verner (like her travel, her assistant, her pay and benefits). That number has fallen by about 10 percent since she took over. That’s largely because she has agreed to accept only $100,000 of nearly $170,000 salary she is entitled. Condon has agreed to take the same hit only for his first year in office.

Claim: “Water Department workers are getting 10 percent pay hikes.”

Truthfulness: Extremely misleading.

Analysis: Water Department employees are members of Local 270 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. They’ve done well during contract negotiations in the past decade, but nowhere near as well as Condon’s ad suggests. This year and next, members with 4 years of experience (about 80 percent of members) will get 5 percent pay increases. Condon said he came up with his 10 percent figure by combining the two pay raises into one. But the ad gives no hint that the figure is a combination. He could better justify the figure by noting that members with less than four years experience will get usual step increase – raises that are automatic annually for the first four years of employment. The steps themselves are frozen this year, but those moving to the next step will see raises of about 10 percent. Local 270 did agree to contract concessions in 2009 that cut their 2010 pay raise in half to 2.5 percent. They also gave up the right for the city to pay them for up to a week of unused vacation each year and some matching money they used to receive for one of their retirement plans.

Claim: “Water rates shouldn’t punish families and those struggling to make ends meet,” Condon said at the end of his commercial.

Truthfulness: Whether new water rates “punish” families depends on how much they water.

Analysis: Generally speaking, the water rate structure the City Council approved with Verner’s signature last year helps the poor because it lowers the rates for the amount of water the vast majority of households use indoors. It’s those who use a lot of water outside who take the hit. Everyone, however, is at least somewhat affected by the decision to raise consumption rates by 16 percent, though the burden again is more on higher consumers.

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Jonathan Brunt
Jonathan Brunt joined The Spokesman-Review in 2004. He is the government editor. He previously was a reporter who covered Spokane City Hall, Spokane County government and public safety.

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