Spokane residents scouring the proposed 1998 city budget to find new dollars for street repair shouldn’t bother.
The money isn’t there.
Next year’s proposed budget calls for spending $13.6 million on transportation, from snow plowing to street cleaning, crack sealing to pothole filling.
That’s a $1 million increase over this year’s transportation budget. But the additional money will go to union-negotiated salary hikes and paying off overtime costs left after last year’s ice storm.
City Manager Bill Pupo and City Council members say they’re painfully aware the spending plan doesn’t offer any hope for the sorry state of long-term street repair.
About $50 million is needed to catch up on long-neglected road maintenance, city officials have estimated.
“The needs of the streets are so great,” Pupo said. “There’s no extraordinary pot of money to get us up to the curve and ahead of the curve.”
“Quite frankly, I don’t have the answer yet,” said Councilman Jeff Colliton.
The answer isn’t in raising property taxes any more than currently planned, city officials said.
The proposed spending plan calls for increasing by 4 percent the total amount of property taxes collected in 1997.
State law allows cities to take up to 6 percent, although a law passed earlier this month by voters requires local governments to take a separate vote on any increase.
The extra 2 percent would be nice, city officials said, but voters have been clear they don’t want their property taxes increased to pay for streets.
Voters turned down a $37.3 million street bond in the fall of 1996.
In fact, voters aren’t too keen on any type of tax increase for road repair. Earlier this month, countywide voters dashed a ballot proposal to levy a local gas tax of 2.3 cents per gallon.
Council members were counting on the additional gas tax revenue to start a long-term road repaving fund and repay a $2.66 million loan.
Last May, the city took out the short-term bank loan to fix five of the most rutted roads.
Now council members must scramble to find money to repay the loan before trying to pay for more repairs.
Luck hasn’t been going their way.
Earlier this year, the state Legislature dropped plans to raise the gas tax to get more money to cities and counties for road maintenance. Next year doesn’t look any better.
Leaders of the Legislature’s Republican majority recently announced they would block any attempts to increase the gas tax or exceed a spending limit imposed by a voter initiative, even though the state has an $800 million surplus.
Spokane’s legislators aren’t bucking the majority opinion, saying the city will get no sympathy or financial support from Olympia in the coming session.
“The only way we can put money into the city’s pockets is with a gas tax, and that’s just not going to happen,” said Republican Rep. Brad Benson.
There may be an attempt to shift some money from the motor vehicle excise tax out of the general fund and into transportation projects. But Benson said, “I don’t know how much of that’s going to get back to local governments.”
Democratic Reps. Jeff Gombosky and Alex Wood say they won’t support a statewide gas tax increase after Spokane voters resoundingly rejected a local increase.
“If (city officials) say, ‘We need money from the Legislature,’ the Legislature’s going to say ‘Sorry,”’ Wood said.
“I don’t think we’re going to do anything special for Spokane,” said Republican Sen. Jim West. “The taxpayers are of the opinion that the city has the money to fix the roads, they just aren’t doing it.”
Despite nothing but bad news coming from Olympia, city officials aren’t giving up on their legislators.
“The groundswell is starting here,” said Colliton, adding that county and city officials and business leaders are planning to work as a group to change their lawmakers’ minds. “We really mean it this time.”
“The Legislature needs to re-examine where they are on this thing,” said Councilman Orville Barnes.
As for finding more money in the city’s budget, good luck, Pupo said.
“When people say that, they have to be able to tell us what services they don’t want provided,” he said. “If that money were in the budget, why would we not want to spend it on streets?”
Councilwoman Phyllis Holmes hopes the city will consider setting aside any unexpected revenues for roads.
Beyond that, she said, “(Mayor-elect John) Talbott has said he knows where the money is. We need to let him find it. Somehow we’ve all missed it.”
Talbott said he plans to look hard at discretionary spending to find more money for streets, although he knows that won’t solve the problem. It’s too early for him to start suggesting cuts, he said.
Councilman-elect Rob Higgins also is reserving comment about where money for streets might be found.
He, too, knows at least part of the answer lies outside the current budget, but that’s where the search must start.
“We can, through prioritization, get more for streets,” he said.
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color photo