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Council travel costs on table

Mon., Dec. 11, 2006

Spokane City Council members use their own cars and cash when they travel around the community attending civic functions.

They seldom submit reimbursement claims for mileage or other costs.

Now they’ve come up with a way to cover some of those costs without having to fill out reimbursement claims.

Council members are proposing a $150 a month travel allowance for each of the seven council members, as well as the council’s two full-time employees. Cost to the taxpayers: $16,000 a year.

The proposal is part of a $528 million budget for 2007 up for adoption tonight. Council members also are considering an increase in their travel budget from $12,000 to $20,000 a year so they can participate in more meetings of groups like the Association of Washington Cities and National League of Cities.

“We do a lot of traveling,” said Councilman Bob Apple, who said he is willing to go along with the mileage allowance.

Councilman Brad Stark said he intends to introduce an amendment to strike the mileage allowance from the proposed budget. It amounts to a back-door salary increase, he said, “I think it’s a bad idea, especially in times of financial hardship.”

The city is facing a potential cash shortfall of millions of dollars in 2008 unless voters approve a higher property tax levy.

Stark said council members should show the courage of proposing a salary increase if that is what they want.

Council members earn $18,000 a year. Council President Joe Shogan earns $40,000 a year. The jobs are considered part-time.

“These council members are all over the community, and they never ask for mileage reimbursement,” said Mary Franklin, the council’s executive assistant.

Shogan said the allowance must be justified and that council members can choose whether they want to take it. “It’s not automatic,” he said. “You have to submit a voucher to get it.”

Councilwoman Nancy McLaughlin said she spends her own money on gasoline, cell phone use and donations to fundraisers. “I don’t think a $150 gas allowance is unreasonable,” she said.

Chief Financial Officer Gavin Cooley said the mileage allowance would cost less than if council members sought reimbursement for all of their expenses.

Apple said his cellular telephone bill nearly doubled to about $70-$80 a month after he took office.

The mileage allowance is one of more than a dozen issues facing the council as it finishes work on the 2007 budget.

Council members are considering proposals to add four police officers and four firefighters at a cost of about $670,000.

Mayor Dennis Hession in a memo last week asked council members to hold off on the new positions until the city receives the results of an efficiency study being conducted by an outside consultant.

Apple said it is apparent that the Police Department needs more officers now. The proposal before the council would add two detectives for increased investigations of property crimes and two neighborhood resource officers to solve residential crime problems, including thefts, drugs and burglary.

Apple opposes a request by Fire Chief Bobby Williams to add a ninth fire marshal position to the fire budget to help with inspections of new buildings expected to be completed next year.

However, it appeared last week that the rest of the council would be willing to go along with that request.

Council members said they were not sure they could support the mayor’s proposal to create a customer service desk at City Hall staffed with a full-time employee at a cost of $60,000 a year rather than senior police volunteers as it is now.

Councilman Al French said he wants to add two new positions to the Planning Department to make good on a city commitment several years ago to write detailed plans in 21 neighborhood centers and corridors. He said only seven of those plans have been completed so far.

“We still have 14 plans out there that haven’t been done,” he said.

Councilwoman Mary Verner said she thinks the council should limit the amount of money it sends to economic development organizations, including the Economic Development Council, which is slated to receive $95,000 next year, and the International Trade Alliance, which would receive $57,000.

Apple said he supports funding for ITA because the money goes to help small businesses market products abroad.

The mayor’s office is also asking the council to transfer $1.1 million into a segregated reserve, bringing that reserve to more than $5.5 million.

The council may approve a one-time $50,000 allocation for restructuring the city’s community access television channel through its Comcast franchise. Community-Minded Enterprises has proposed taking over operations of the cable channel and could use money for equipment and facilities that is available through the city’s franchise agreement.

Spokane Valley is also being asked to join in the new operation.


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