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Police hiring likely on hold

Full implementation of Spokane’s plan to expand community policing next year could fall victim to a worsening economy.

A new, gloomier economic forecast has persuaded Mayor Mary Verner to consider delaying the hiring of 12 more police officers and six Fire Department employees in 2009 – at least for several months.

“I’m not feeling good about retaining the positions in the (upcoming) budget,” Verner said Friday.

But she added that she has not given up hope that the economy could improve.

“It’s still a very high priority,” she said. By the end of the year city leaders will adopt the 2009 budget. Verner said her proposed budget originally had forecast a 2 percent increase in revenue from taxes and other sources. But this week, she asked city finance administrators to draft a hold-the-line spending plan.

City Councilman Richard Rush said there’s been a growing understanding that new hiring might have to be delayed.

“I don’t see that the mayor has been given a lot of choices,” he said.

The new jobs were announced last year by former Mayor Dennis Hession as part of a two-year plan to roll out a community policing program developed in part by Police Chief Anne Kirkpatrick. Hession made the announcement about a month before the mayoral primary election and said it was “sustainable.”

As mayor, Verner has said she hoped to move ahead with the plan as long as the city could afford to do so.

Half the proposal was implemented this year with 12 new officers on the North Side. South side community policing was scheduled to start with the dozen extra officers hired next year.

City Administrator Ted Danek said if the dozen can’t be hired next year, Kirkpatrick’s plan likely will move ahead just for the North Side, for now.

Chief Financial Officer Gavin Cooley said it would cost the city about $712,000 to hire the south side officers and $342,000 to hire the fire employees. The new jobs would cost about $125,000 more each subsequent year because of increasing wages and benefits.

Verner said she plans to submit a two-year budget proposal to the City Council that wouldn’t dip into the city’s new rainy-day fund nor raise property taxes above the 1 percent annual increase that city leaders generally approve.

She said she plans to use the rainy-day fund only if the economy falters to the point where the only other option is layoffs.

“It’s going to be a really tough year for me and the council to make it through without cutting services,” she said.

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