The Spokane City Council on Monday postponed a possible vote on a settlement in its legal battle over River Park Square, and instead scheduled an unusual Saturday session to consider the pact.
Council members said they want to give themselves and the public a chance to look over the details of any settlement before voting. The meeting was scheduled for 8 a.m. in Council Chambers at City Hall. Public testimony will be taken.
Also on Monday, the council unanimously approved a contract with Local 29 firefighters, giving them a 9 percent salary increase at the start of 2005, plus additional increases through 2007. The total wage hike at the end of the contract will be at least 17.5 percent. Firefighters have been working for two years on an expired contract.
Union firefighters came under fire from Councilman Brad Stark, who pointed out that money for their salary increases is enough to pay for all the firefighters being laid off because of budget cuts in 2005.
The city currently is considering a reduction of 58 firefighters from a uniformed force of 334 as part of a $4.5 million cut in fire spending from 2004 to 2005. About $18 million could be cut from the city’s $118 million general tax fund.
“Are you willing to be part of the solution and forego any pay increases?” Stark asked union President Greg Borg.
Borg replied, “No, we aren’t.” He said firefighters are not responsible for city budget problems, and that the costs associated with River Park Square have been a major drain on city revenue, along with voter-approved tax cuts.
Firefighters have fought for “family-wage jobs,” Borg said. “I am not ashamed of that at all.”
Councilwoman Cherie Rodgers said blame for the fire wage dispute dates back to former Mayor John Powers, who failed to negotiate a new fire contract during his term.
Under state law, fire and police salaries are ultimately based on what is being paid in Washington cities of similar size. The top scale for firefighters in Spokane will increase to $62,700 next year. Other ranks make higher salaries. By comparison, Tacoma firefighters get $59,700; Bellevue, $62,200; and Vancouver, $64,600, according to the Association of Washington Cities.
Council members are expected to convene a study session on Thursday to consider options for balancing the 2005 budget. The session will be in the council briefing center, tentatively at 3 p.m.
In a related matter, Mayor Jim West and two other top city officials were expected to travel to San Francisco today to meet with rating agencies on the sale of bonds to fix Spokane streets. Voters approved $117 million in bonds last month and city officials hope to sell an initial $31 million of those bonds later this month to finance the start of the work in 2005.
Negotiations over a proposed settlement over River Park Square were reportedly near completion. Under the agreement, the city would turn over ownership of the mall garage to the developer and pay $8 million held in escrow against financial losses at the garage. The city would pay property taxes of about $1 million owed by the garage. The city general fund would also carry $20 million or more in debt stemming from sale of the mall garage by the developer in the late 1990s.
In return, the developer would guarantee full payment on a $22.65 million construction loan obtained by the mall through the city and federal government. A shortage of loan payments has forced the city to tap its community development block grant funds intended for low-income neighborhoods. The developer also would return $1.5 million to the city, and another $500,000 in future years.
Council President Dennis Hession said late negotiations caused a postponement of the vote on Monday, and that he did not “want anybody to be surprised by the details” when the agreement is finalized.
River Park Square is owned by corporations affiliated with Cowles Publishing Co., which also owns The Spokesman-Review, KHQ-TV and other media.
Former Councilman Steve Corker called for full disclosure of circumstances surrounding the public-private partnership that put the city in the parking garage business at the mall.
He noted that the owners of the mall had threatened bankruptcy and were forcing a settlement at the same time the city is facing serious budget problems. “I think that was by design,” he said. The developer disclosed last week that Chapter 11 bankruptcy has been considered for the financially stressed RPS companies.
“From the developer’s perspective it (the timing) is strictly unrelated,” said Jennifer West, spokeswoman for River Park Square, who noted that a federal trial over garage financing is set to start next month.
Corker contended that the Cowles family publishing business controls “80 percent” of the media in Spokane, the same media that is telling the public about the RPS controversy. He also asked if a separate lawsuit against him, former Mayor John Talbott, Councilwoman Cherie Rodgers and former Councilman Steve Eugster would be settled, as well.
The developer sued the four individually in 2002 in Superior Court for conspiring to interfere with the mall’s success. Corker and others said they were exercising free speech in the course of their official duties. The status of that suit was not clear Monday.
Also appearing at Monday’s council meeting was Hal Ellis, chair of the Spokane Parking Public Development Authority, a public entity that leased the garage from a private foundation. He said the RPS deal defied commonly accepted business practices, but settlement offered the community a chance “to put this in the past.”