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Mayor tries to stay upbeat amid tough economic times

Spokane Mayor Mary Verner accentuated the positive Monday in her annual state of the city speech to City Council.

But the mayor choked up briefly when her speech hit on the gloomy news that has dominated city hall in recent weeks – the 120 pink slips recently distributed to city employees.

“Those are real people,” she said in a brief interview after the speech. “I knew almost everybody on the list.”

The city forecasts a $12 million deficit for 2011. City officials have asked unions to give up their pay raises next year and to pay more for their health insurance to prevent layoffs. So far, no unions have agreed.

“We remain hopeful that our bargaining units will agree to give up pay raises for next year,” Verner said in her speech. “But we are prepared to move forward with the less-desirable deeper cuts.”

In her half hour speech, Verner discussed the city’s efforts to attract businesses, plans to create a new police evidence building without new taxes, the City Council’s decision to strengthen the police ombudsman position, progress made on street paving projects, the extension of bike lanes, improvements to the city’s recycling program, efforts to continue helping economic development initiatives within the city’s neighborhoods and changes to make the city’s permitting process easier.

Verner noted that 57 percent of the city’s general fund budget pays for public safety, making it extremely difficult to avoid cuts in police and fire services – which she said remains the city’s top priorities.

“The shortfall cannot define Spokane,” she said. “What we do to surmount this obstacle will define Spokane.”

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Then and Now: Comstock Park

James M. Comstock, born in 1838 in Wisconsin, arrived in Spokane in time to witness the great fire of 1889 and start Spokane Dry Goods with Robert Paterson. It became the Crescent, Spokane’s premier department store for a century. He also worked in real estate and owned other businesses. He served a term as Spokane mayor, starting in 1899. James Comstock died in 1918.