Council weighing tax vote in March
Evidence site top need; schools oppose timing
Six months after rejecting Mayor Mary Verner’s plan to raise property taxes for a police evidence building, animal shelter and other requests, the Spokane City Council appears headed to endorse Verner’s same conclusion: More taxes are needed.
The City Council on Monday will consider whether to place an $18.5 million tax measure on the March 10 ballot. The council’s plan is similar to one proposed by Verner in August. One major difference, however, is that it would be placed on the same ballot as two multimillion-dollar tax proposals for Spokane Public Schools.
The largest part of the tax plan, which was developed by three members of the City Council, is a new property evidence building on land that currently houses the city’s street department. New taxes also would pay for an addition to Spokane County’s animal shelter, renovation of the police firing range and purchase of a building for the city’s new Municipal Court.
Last month, at a joint meeting with the City Council and the Spokane County Commission, school administrators asked leaders to keep other tax questions off the March ballot.
“The more issues that you put on the ballot, the more it diverts people’s attention away from any of them individually,” Superintendent Nancy Stowell said in an interview this week. “So anything that diverts attention away from our education program is a concern to us.”
The schools are asking for a $288 million construction bond and a three-year levy that would raise about $60 million a year.
Some council members say the city’s needs, especially for a new property evidence building, can’t wait.
“I feel like we don’t have any choice,” Councilwoman Nancy McLaughlin said.
Placing the measure on the same ballot as the school district will save the city money because it will split the cost of the election with the schools.
But Councilman Richard Rush said as much as he supports the measure, he opposes putting it on the March ballot.
“We have been asked politely and repeatedly to not plan another competing ballot issue,” he said.
Council President Joe Shogan said the difference between Verner’s plan, which would have been on November’s ballot, and the council’s is that council members have had a chance to review it. Some council members said last year they were surprised when the mayor requested the tax and they didn’t have enough time to determine if it was the best strategy.
Shogan said the city’s current evidence building, near the Spokane County Courthouse, is a serious liability because of its condition and its lack of room for growth.
“These are necessities,” Shogan said. “The property evidence room is antiquated, outdated and insufficient.”
The city already must pay to enlarge the Spokane County Regional Animal Protect Service shelter on Flora Road because of the City Council’s decision last year to use the agency for animal control services.
Approval of the tax plan would also allow the city to pay $2 million for a building at 1417 W. Gardner Ave. that it is leasing for $16,000 a month. Officials hope to use the building to house the Municipal Court, which is now in the Spokane County Courthouse.
Police have argued that they need to update their shooting range, which is adjacent to the Spokane River near Spokane Community College, because of safety and environmental concerns.
Councilman Bob Apple said the recession makes this a poor time to increase taxes.
“I’m not going to support, in this economic environment, that kind of expenditure by the public,” he said.
Verner said she will support the package because the items are “direly needed.”
“It’s going to be challenging to have a bond measure passed under these circumstances, but if the council puts the measure on the ballot, then my goal is going to be to try to get the facilities built,” Verner said.
Even if the bond passes, the city likely will ask voters for more money later in 2009 aimed at Spokane Fire Department needs, including new firetrucks.
Union officials met with administrators last year to consider combining the police and fire requests in one bond.
Greg Borg, president of Spokane firefighters union, said his group would not support combining the fire and police items in one vote unless city administrators committed to raising firefighter staffing numbers to 2005 levels, before about 50 firefighting jobs were cut because of budget troubles.
“It’s definitely making a difference on our response times and our ability to respond to emergencies in a timely manner,” Borg said.
Borg called the idea to run a combined bond a “leverage issue.”
“They’ve got to give to get,” he said. He added that the union wanted a generic commitment to adding more firefighters: “We didn’t say it had to happen all at once.”
Borg said the fire union supports the public safety bond and would work on its behalf if the Spokane Police Guild makes a request.
Jonathan Brunt can be reached at email@example.com or (509) 459-5442.