May 13, 2010 in City

No sugarcoating Spokane’s ‘dismal’ budget

Verner’s outline includes ‘ugly’ job cuts, but no tax increases
By The Spokesman-Review
 

Verner
(Full-size photo)

Mayor’s proposal

Mayor Mary Verner said current revenue projections of $165 million are about $10 million short of expected costs. Her plan:

Eliminates 18.5 police jobs and nine firefighter positions and makes some city services available just four days a week.

Cuts 44 positions, two of which were grant funded. Some open jobs would remain dark and other cuts would come from retirements.

Does not call for tax increases.

Calls for the council to approve using $2 million from its rainy day fund.

Presumes that Spokane County commissioners would agree to speed up the West Plains annexation, which would provide another $2.5 million for the budget.

Asks the city’s employee bargaining units to open their contracts and authorize a 4 percent increase in what they pay for their health benefits.

Freezes pay of senior city leaders, cuts $500,000 from the Spokane Public Library and cuts one of two street crews that fix potholes.

Spokane Mayor Mary Verner on Wednesday outlined a grim budget proposal for 2011 that would eliminate 18.5 police jobs and nine firefighter positions and make city services available just four days a week.

“I’m going to ask you to brace yourselves,” Verner told City Council members. “This is a pretty dismal budget we are going to propose.”

Verner said current revenue projections of $165 million are about $10 million short of expected costs. That follows a year when city leaders had to make cuts to make up for a $7 million shortfall.

As it stands, the proposal would cut 44 positions, two of which were grant funded. But that doesn’t mean 44 people would lose their jobs. Some open jobs would remain dark and others would come from retirements, she said.

“At this point, I can’t guarantee everyone will have a job who wants one,” she said. “Obviously, it is very ugly. But if we had to execute the budget today, that’s how we would execute it.”

The mayor’s 2011 spending proposal, which won’t be finalized until November, avoids tax increases. But it does call for the council to approve using $2 million from its rainy day fund and presumes that Spokane County commissioners would agree to speed up the West Plains annexation, which would provide another $2.5 million for the budget.

In addition, Verner said she would ask the city’s employee bargaining units to open their contracts and authorize a 4 percent increase in what they pay for their health benefits, which would save the city $1 million. She pointed out that the unions have no legal obligation to do so.

She delivered the news to the unions in a meeting just before the City Council briefing. The only two unions not represented in that meeting were the Spokane Police Guild, which opens negotiations next year, and the Police Lieutenants and Captains Association.

Most union representatives “have expressed a willingness to discuss” the health benefit increase, Verner said. With no increase, “the number of employees who get laid off gets bigger. There is a real incentive to work with us.”

Verner said if any of the proposals falls through, the revenue would have to be made up through either more job cuts or tax increases.

One of the proposals would have city employees switch to a four-day workweek with 10-hour shifts. Citywide, the change would only save $50,000.

“For $50,000, we didn’t want to diminish our services. But $50,000 means a job, and we are at that point,” she said.

City Administrator Ted Danek said the city has done surveys in the past that showed some residents would be willing to forgo having city offices open five days a week if those services are available either before or after normal work hours.

The plan also calls for freezing the pay of senior city leaders, a $500,000 reduction for the Spokane Public Library – which was the largest statistical cut of any department – and getting rid of one of two street crews that fix potholes.

City Council President Joe Shogan asked Verner if she had a contingency plan if county leaders don’t agree to speed the process to annex land in the West Plains.

“The departments have been alerted to come up with a contingency plan” for more cuts if the annexation deal does not come through, she said.

Tim Dunivant, the city’s budget director, said 40 percent of the shortfall came from lower tax revenues. For example, the utility tax revenues were much lower this year because of a warmer winter.

Verner said the city has received 62 permits for new homes so far this year, which is second lowest to the record low set in 2009.

“I’m told that the new housing starts haven’t been this bad since World War II,” she said. “People are losing their jobs. … it is really hard all over.”

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