December 16, 2008 in City

City Council trims budget

Unanimous vote spares workers from layoffs
By The Spokesman-Review
 

With growing concerns that the economy will continue to falter, the Spokane City Council on Monday sliced almost $1.5 million from next year’s budget.

With the cuts, the city will avoid the reduction in work force that many other governments, including Spokane County, have approved in recent weeks.

“We’ve balanced without any layoffs and without dipping into the $5 million rainy day fund,” Council President Joe Shogan said.

The 2009 budget totals more than $600 million.

The city was largely able to avoid cuts by taxing sewer and water fees that had previously been untaxed. Because the city decided not to pass that tax on through customer bills, the money will be paid out of utility reserve funds that focus on long-term construction projects.

Some council members had criticized the plan because, they argued, it would force rates higher later or cause the city to borrow money for expensive sewer and water upgrades, some of which are required to meet environmental standards.

But the changes to utility tax policy add more than $4 million to the budget. Without it, officials said, layoffs would have been inevitable. They said sewer rates and tax policy will be revisited in the coming months.

The City Council approved the budget unanimously, a feat Chief Financial Officer Gavin Cooley called “remarkable,” given the economic turmoil the nation faces. He noted that it was the first unanimous vote for a city budget during his tenure.

The budget approved by the council is based on Mayor Mary Verner’s recommendation. But she had asked that it include a 2 percent projected increase in sales tax revenue and argued that cuts could be made next year if revenues faltered. For instance, she said, her plan to hire six police officers was scheduled for midyear, allowing administrators to ensure that the economy is stable before bringing on new staff.

Council members, however, said they were uncomfortable putting the money in the budget at all.

Verner said she’s OK with the council’s cuts, which instead count on a 2 percent decrease in sales tax revenue.

“With the current changes that we’re seeing in the economy, I can live with what the council is contemplating,” Verner said before the vote.

Among changes made to make up for the cut, the council removed the planned hiring of six new police officer and a new Fire Department job. They also slashed the city’s capital budget, which pays for miscellaneous items, from $500,000 to zero and reduced the fuel budget by a third based on the recent decline in gas prices.

Police Chief Anne Kirkpatrick said she’ll work with the council to restore the police officers, who were to be hired to implement Kirkpatrick’s neighborhood policing plan, when money is in better supply.

“The economy is doing this, not the council,” she said.

One new item that remains in the budget is a new police ombudsman, who will help oversee police activity and policy.

Jonathan Brunt can be reached at jonathanb@spokesman.com or (509) 459-5442.


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