Spokane voters likely will decide in five months if they’ll continue paying extra property taxes for fire engines, equipment and stations.
Around the same time, the city may consider job cuts that would force one station to close to help make up a projected $7 million budget shortfall.
Asking taxpayers for more money to build new stations at the same time it’s closing others is a scenario that leaders acknowledge could make passing a fire tax difficult. But it’s also one, they say, that can be avoided.
“We’re working hard to make sure that that outcome never materializes,” said Spokane Mayor Mary Verner.
City officials are hoping to make up half the projected City Hall deficit by negotiating contract concessions with unions. The rest could come by dipping into reserves, raising business license fees and cutting other expenses.
“I’m confident that we’re going to be able to come up with a solution,” City Councilman Steve Corker said.
Since 1989, the city has depended on a voter-approved property tax to cover most fire expenses beyond personnel. The strategy has helped Spokane rebuild many of its fire stations, and pay for most of its trucks and gear. But that money can’t be used to pay personnel when the city struggles to balance its budget.
The tax is “very important to the operations of the fire department and the operations of the city,” said Gavin Cooley, the city’s chief financial officer.
The last bond was approved in 1999 and expires this year. Fire leaders are proposing a $33 million bond for the November ballot that would cost the owner of a $100,000 property $27 a year. That’s about a $10 increase from what the same taxpayer is charged for the current fire tax.
Fire Chief Bobby Williams said the department identified $50 million in needs but scaled it back in consultation with other city leaders and firefighters.
“We have really tried to be conscientious of what’s going on in the economy,” Williams said.
Most of the money would go to buy trucks and fire equipment and pay for maintenance on stations. But it also includes $6 million to buy land and build two new stations.
Adding a station in Latah Valley became a significant issue in the 2007 mayoral election because of slower response times to the neighborhood. Williams said the city may also need to build a station on the West Plains to accommodate the proposed annexation of 10 square miles.
Depending on how the city grows, other locations that might need stations within the next decade include Moran Prairie and Five Mile.
Fire officials have argued since significant layoffs five years ago that some current stations don’t have enough firefighters. And Williams said if more layoffs occur, a station likely would close.
“That’s a goal that we have is to try to avoid layoffs. Whether we’ll be able to get there, it’s too soon to tell,” he said.
Williams said stations that would make the short list for closure, based on their lower call volumes, are the stations near Joe Albi Stadium and Spokane Community College and stations in Indian Trail and at 18th and Bernard.
Greg Borg, president of Local 29, the Spokane Firefighters Union, said the station most talked about for closure is the one at 18th and Bernard. He added that he remains hopeful that layoffs won’t be needed.
“We are working with the city already on lowering the cost of medical insurance,” Borg said.
Officials say that if the bond passes, but they can’t find ways to staff new stations – or if they decide they aren’t needed – the City Council can choose to use the money for other fire needs or can avoid collecting the extra taxes.
Even if staff cuts become necessary, Williams says the city will still need the property tax. He noted that some of the department’s trucks were built in the late 1970s.
“God forbid, if we get to that position of having fewer people, you’re still going to have to make sure that the people that you do have – whatever number that is – have the facilities, apparatus and tools to do their jobs and provide service to the community,” Williams said.
The City Council has until Aug. 11 to decide if it will place the bond on the November ballot.