November 27, 2007 in City

Verner discusses first steps as mayor

By The Spokesman-Review
 
The Spokesman-Review photo

Verner
(Full-size photo)

Spokane’s new mayor hopes to restore garbage pickup along alleys and will try to persuade City Council members to block a proposed utility rate cut as she takes control of City Hall today after a hard-fought election.

Mary Verner, who becomes the city’s 43rd mayor, also plans to hire a professional facilitator to help resolve ongoing problems between the city firefighters union, one of her top campaign backers, and Spokane Fire Chief Bobby Williams.

“I’m excited. I’m eager to get going,” Verner said, after completing her final City Council meeting as a council member Monday night. “I’ve already exhibited that I’m a person of action.”

None of the moves, which she discussed in a recent interview, is a big surprise.

During the campaign, Verner promised a review of alley garbage collection. She was critical of outgoing Mayor Dennis Hession’s plan to reduce utility rates since the day he announced it – about two weeks before the election. And, at a mayoral candidates’ debate in October, Verner denied rumors she planned to fire Williams, but suggested she would work to improve relations between the chief and his employees.

Verner will be sworn into office at a ceremony this evening.

In May, an estimated 2,200 north Spokane garbage customers were informed that trucks would no longer drive through their alleys. A similar plan was discussed for south Spokane but was put on hold after residents complained.

Verner said she asked Dave Mandyke, the acting public works director, to start meeting with neighborhood councils to consider a new alley pickup plan for the North Side.

One possible solution is to have garbage trucks pick up from the alleys, but only along one edge, meaning customers living on one side of the alley would have to move their bins to the other, Verner said.

“The preliminary assessment is we can do it,” she said.

Mandyke said he doesn’t expect to return to the alleys until after a new plan is finalized.

“I don’t want to switch and switch and switch,” he said. “We don’t want to confuse people.”

He said there still is likely to be a cost savings by traveling down each alley once.

Mandyke noted that some customers who until recently had alley service may remain street pickup customers, in part because some preferred the change.

Last week, Hession said collecting trash from the alleys that were removed from pickup service is not “tenable” in the long run. He noted that most customers already have street-side pickup and that using alleys takes extra time and money.

“It comes down to, ‘Are you mad because you’re inconvenienced to have to take your garbage to the front?’ ” Hession said. “For … 85 percent of the people that already take their garbage to the front, it doesn’t ring very strong to them.”

Hession’s proposed 2 percent rate cuts in sewer, water and trash rates would save the average ratepayer about $17 a year. The public works department earlier had requested a 3.5 percent rate increase.

Verner said her preference is to keep prices where they are until the city completes a rate study next year to ensure the city is collecting what it needs to maintain service. “I’m going to work with the council to see if I can persuade them to keep them at 2007 rates,” she said.

Williams has been fire chief almost two decades.

At a debate in October, Hession accused Verner of telling Local 29, the city’s firefighting union, that she would fire Williams. She said that was untrue.

Last week, Verner said she has asked Williams and the union to identify who they want to lead the discussions. She added that she also plans to take part. “I’ve talked to Bobby, and we’re going to go ahead with the facilitated dialogue with the union, which is exactly what I said we would do,” Verner said. “I’m expecting that that’s going to go very well.”

Williams said he sees the dialogue as another in a series of positive actions aimed at improving labor relations. “We’re constantly looking for ways to improve our relationship,” he said.

He said the department’s relationship with the union was strained in 2004 and 2005 after budget cuts caused 52 layoffs. Since then, he said, it’s gotten much better. He noted that the union wrote a letter earlier this year praising him for an “immensely” improved dialogue.


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