Spokane voters will decide in November if they want to continue paying extra property taxes to buy fire equipment and build new fire stations.
But residents may cast their votes at the same time city leaders prepare to close a fire station and lay off firefighters to deal with a forecast $7 million deficit.
The Spokane City Council on Monday voted unanimously to place a $33 million fire bond on the November ballot to replace the 10-year fire bond, passed in 1999, that expires at the end of the year.
The new tax would cost the owner of a $100,000 property about $27 a year, about $10 more than the expiring tax.
Fire Chief Bobby Williams said the department trimmed other projects from the bond because of the recession.
Councilman Mike Allen said that even though the new tax replaces an old one, it may not be an easy sell.
“Ten dollars is still a chunk of money for some folks,” Allen said.
The money could be used only for equipment and construction, and not to fill the budget gap.
Williams recently submitted a preliminary budget that would cut 15 firefighters from the city’s 292 uniformed fire positions. The reduction is sharp enough to cause a station to close, he said.
City officials say they hope to avoid layoffs, in part by negotiating contract concessions from unions. Leaders must approve a 2010 budget by the end of the year.
“There has not been any decision made that we will lose firefighters,” Williams said. “The budget is still a work in progress.”
Even if layoffs become necessary, Williams said the bond is important because remaining firefighters still need quality safety equipment and dependable fire vehicles.
In 1989, the city decided to start a fire bond program on 10-year cycles. Voters approved fire bonds in 1989 and 1999.
Most of the money would be used for new trucks and equipment, and maintenance on stations. About $6 million would be earmarked for new stations. Fire leaders have said locations could be Latah Valley, West Plains, Five Mile Prairie or Moran Prairie.
The council placed the tax on the ballot before completion of a study examining the future of the fire department, including the possibility of taking over ambulance service from a private contractor.
Councilman Bob Apple asked if the city is tying up its future by putting the tax on the ballot. Williams said language in the bond is flexible enough that money could be spent on other items if priorities shift.