Facing a decline in sales and real estate taxes, the Spokane City Council will consider a property tax next week that would raise as much as $27.3 million to pay for new construction projects for police and animal control.
The council voted 6-1 on Wednesday to set the level and will decide Monday whether to put the matter on the ballot.
But it was unclear if there’s support on the council to put the matter before voters in November. During Wednesday’s hearing, five of the seven members voiced reluctance.
“Based on the information I have today, I would not vote for this,” Councilman Steve Corker said.
Last week, Mayor Mary Verner presented three tax options to council members ranging from $11 million to $41 million. She said a decision not to increase property taxes could result in other budget cuts, because at least some of the projects can’t be delayed and projections show a tight 2009 budget.
The highest option would have included a new complex for the city garage, street department and other operations. City Administrator Ted Danek said Wednesday that option cost too much and that Verner’s preference is to ask voters for $15.8 million.
“The mayor has looked at everything, weighed it all out and said, ‘You know what, this is where the balance point is and I really don’t feel comfortable asking the voters for more,’ ” Danek said.
Council members said they set a figure higher than the mayor’s recommendation to keep options open and meet public-notice requirements. City Attorney Howard Delaney told council members that once the number was set Wednesday, it would be difficult to increase it legally.
If the council chooses a property tax, the proposal would need 60 percent support to pass.
Remaining items under consideration as part of the $27.3 million tax plan:
•$3 million for an addition to the Spokane County Regional Animal Protection Service shelter. The city agreed this year to use SCRAPS for animal control services starting in 2010.
•$2 million for a new police shooting range.
•$10.8 million for a new evidence building.
•$9.5 million to expand the new evidence building for vehicle evidence.
•$2 million for a new structure to house public works functions that would be displaced by the new evidence building.
Verner favors a tax increase for the evidence building, shooting range and animal shelter expansion.
Councilman Al French said he supported setting a number Wednesday to allow more discussion on the issue.
“I don’t want to send the message to the voters that just because we established a maximum number for the purposes of notice that there is any energy to go to the maximum number,” French said.
Councilman Bob Apple cast the lone vote against setting the level for a bond. Besides Apple and Corker, French and council members Mike Allen and Nancy McLaughlin asked if a November tax measure was the best approach.
“I understand the need. I’m not convinced that the bond is the best way to deal with the need today,” French said. “The one potential that I personally like is doing a public safety bond next spring.”
That option would entail combining plans for police spending with items expected to be asked for next year in a renewal of the city’s fire bond.
City leaders say police need a new firing range because of environmental and safety concerns. The current range, adjacent to the Spokane River near Spokane Community College, catches bullets with a dirt berm. Danek said the system could pose a problem with lead contamination.
That concern is not shared by the state Department of Ecology.
“Research has shown that bullets are inert if they are in soil,” said Ecology spokeswoman Jani Gilbert. “The other environmental concern is uptake by wildlife, and we have observed that wildlife don’t tend to hang out around shooting ranges.”
At Wednesday’s meeting, Danek said the city has seen other studies that indicate the lead could pose a problem. He said the city has sent soil samples to be tested. He called the state’s assessment unfair.
“They don’t have the data so they have not given us an official answer. We’re just getting ready to approach them,” Danek said.
Even if the lead bullets aren’t a hazard, Assistant Chief Jim Nicks said the shooting range is deteriorating and that bullets have ricocheted from the berm, causing safety problems.
“It’s not really a super-high risk factor, but it’s not a risk that we enjoy,” said Nicks, who called the proposed range a “Cadillac” version.
The $2 million for a new range includes $800,000 to pay for an environmental cleanup if deemed necessary. The rest would pay for the range, including a new bullet collection system.
“We absolutely can do this for less than $1.2 million. It’s really do you want us coming before you every three or four years and coming at this with a nickel-and-dime solution?” Danek said.
The plan would pay for an additional 100-yard range for rifle practice. The current range is 50 yards and used mostly for handguns.
Spokane police officers go through shooting training at least quarterly, said range master Sgt. John Roys. About half of the patrol officers keep rifles in their cars.
“In order to provide the best service that we can, we have to train,” Roys said. “If you don’t do these things, you’re looking at someone being in a lethal fire situation who wasn’t trained properly.”
The evidence storage building would be built at Normandie and Mission, where the city houses its garage and other functions. Officials had previously considered buying the old Costco store on Third Avenue, but administrators say the Normandie site is a better long-term option because that’s where they eventually want to construct a new Police Department complex.
Police Chief Anne Kirkpatrick said that the current evidence storage building has more than 145,000 pieces of evidence and that its drug vault, gun storage and other areas are at 130 percent of capacity or more. The building lacks a fire suppression system and a proper ventilation system.
The $10.8 million cost might seem high, but “there is a much greater cost if this evidence is breached,” Kirkpatrick said.
Danek said at the least, the city needs to move forward with a shooting range and to expand the animal shelter. But, he added, a $5 million tax proposal would be unwise.
“You don’t go to an ATM machine and pay $2 and withdraw 10,” Danek said. “If we have to go to the voters to pay for the $5 million, the thought is let’s go to the voters, present some more urgent capital needs.”
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