Property tax payers in Spokane probably aren’t wild about the $33 million bond they are being asked to support for firefighting gear, vehicles and stations. As property owners, however, they want their homes and businesses protected.
So the question about Proposition 1 on the Nov. 3 ballot is whether the amount asked is reasonable for the protection that it promises.
The City Council seemed to think so. From the most free-spending member to the most tightfisted, they voted unanimously to submit the measure to the voters. If passed, it will replace a bond measure approved by city voters in 1999, but will cost $27 per $100,000 of valuation instead of the $17 being collected on the soon-to-expire issue.
Fire officials’ original proposal would have totaled $50 million, but they pared it back because of the economy. Still, the 2009 bond measure is almost 50 percent higher than 1999’s. Why so?
Roughly a third of this year’s proposal is for fire engines, ladder trucks, a rescue vehicle and other apparatus. Those things wear out. Yet a battery of inflationary pressures adds tens of thousands of dollars to the cost of a new fire engine, from the high-demand materials of which they’re made to new regulatory requirements for their construction.
Nearly another third of the bond amount is for land acquisition and construction of two more fire stations. Where depends on looming annexation decisions to the west and south, plus residential and commercial growth along Latah Creek.
It is hard to argue with those two categories of expenditure. The same is true of slightly more than $2 million intended for protective clothing and equipment for firefighters. Throw in $3.5 million for customary contingencies, taxes and legal and procedural expenses and what’s left is $6.1 million for “miscellaneous equipment.”
That is a lot of miscellany, and skeptical voters are entitled to wonder if some of the hose, nozzles, computer updates and other expenditures don’t belong in the normal operating budget. The problem is that the operating budget is under unbearable pressure, which brings us back to the question of whether we want a Fire Department that’s adequately equipped.
Using periodic bond issues to cover foreseeable capital expenses is reasonable. But if voters approve, as we think they should, the Fire Department and the City Council owe them something in return regarding those miscellaneous expenses. The city doesn’t have to spend the money just because it’s available.
If some funds go unspent, the flexibility that allows the City Council to direct it to other capital needs within the Fire Department can be used to return it to the taxpayers.
A 2019 bond issue likely will show continued inflation, and the department still has $17 million worth of requests that were removed from the original proposal.
If the city anticipates continuing this strategy 10 years from now, they should use that time to show the voters they are trustworthy stewards.