Roland Chase has a message for incoming leaders of Spokane’s city government:
“I would not turn my back on the youth of Spokane.”
Chase is the son of Jim Chase, the former mayor and champion of Spokane’s youth.
This week, one of Chase’s top legacies was undone by the Spokane City Council when it opted not to give the Youth Department enough funding to remain part of city government. On Wednesday, the city Youth Department’s two employees received layoff notices, effective Christmas Eve. There is no other organization in place to take over the department’s functions.
At the same time, the City Council voted to spend an amount similar to what would have been needed to save the Youth Department on increased benefits for council members’ assistants, and to allow City Council President-elect Ben Stuckart to hire an assistant.
Only outgoing Councilman Steve Corker voiced support for maintaining the Youth Department within city government.
Chase said he’s angry that the fight his father led to make youth a priority within city government – including casting a vote for the program from a hospital bed – has been dismissed.
“I think they’re figuring that most of the youth we have don’t vote,” said Chase, a retired court bailiff. “If they can afford Weights & Measures, they can afford some money to spend on the youth of Spokane. They will vote one day and they might remember.”
Mayor Mary Verner’s proposed budget put three city departments at risk: Arts, Weights & Measures and Youth. By the end of the hearing this week that finalized the city budget, Arts and Weights & Measures were preserved at nearly the same funding levels they received this year. But the council followed Verner’s recommendation to slash the youth budget from about $175,000 this year to $54,000.
That money, along with $54,000 from the county, will be used to entice a nonprofit group to take over the duties of the Youth Department.
Council President Joe Shogan said the Youth Department seems to be on the chopping block every year there’s a budget crunch.
“It has not found a real sustainable way to function,” Shogan said. “We’re not saying we’re doing away with them. But we’re looking at a better way to provide the service.”
Councilman Jon Snyder was one of the six council members who disagreed with Corker’s attempt to provide funding to maintain the Youth Department. He said it’s possible that the department could remain part of city government in some form.
“In my mind no action has been taken that sets that direction in stone,” he said. “I wish we had more of a discussion about where that is going.” But Snyder conceded that any future discussions will take place after the department’s staff has been laid off.
The Youth Department works with the Chase Youth Commission, which is staffed by volunteers, to organize the annual Chase Youth Awards. Because the awards are separately funded by a foundation, it’s expected that they will continue. The department and the commission also hold a Battle of the Bands competition and a candidate debate.
The department’s other activities include operating a website, www.youthlinkspokane.org; partnering with the West Central Neighborhood Council to help improve academic achievement in the neighborhood; and developing an anti-bullying campaign. But most important, say students and others involved in the program, the department gives teens a forum to comment on city issues and participate in decision making.
Snyder said the department did good work but could have done more.
“We’re trying to use this opportunity to make sure programs are performing at their highest possible level,” the councilman said. “If there was more agreement that the Youth Department was performing at the highest possible level, maybe the outcome would have been different.”
During the recent mayoral campaign, Mayor-elect David Condon didn’t disagree with Verner’s plan to turn over the Youth Department’s functions to a nonprofit agency. But he said this week that it appeared premature to dissolve the program without a clear path forward. He named Youth Director Joanne Benham, who is being laid off, to his transition team.
Condon said he will push for a vibrant youth program with strong ties to city government and the Chase Youth Commission even if it doesn’t receive much funding from city taxpayers.
Not unnoticed by supporters of the Youth Department was a separate decision by the council to begin providing medical benefits to their assistants at a potential cost of more than $100,000. The council also set aside $45,000 so incoming City Council President Ben Stuckart can have an assistant. Outgoing Council President Joe Shogan and outgoing Councilman Bob Apple were the only council members who declined having personal assistants.
Shogan, Apple and Councilwoman Nancy McLaughlin opposed the benefits for council assistants.
McLaughlin said while she supported hiring part-time assistants a few years ago, now isn’t the time to increase the costs of the program.
But Snyder said it’s unfair to “ghettoize” the assistants just because they aren’t members of unions. The council had kept their hours just slightly below the amount that would have forced the city to offer them medical benefits. Monday’s action makes them three-quarters of full time and gives them full city health benefits.
“People who work for me ought to enjoy the same benefits that I have,” Snyder said.
Snyder noted that the city also added $100,000 to its Human Services budget that will be up for grabs for social services agencies focusing on health issues. The allocation was sparked because Project Access, which was funded by the city last year, forgot to apply and was not included in the city’s annual funding to human services agencies. This year, the city awarded $900,000 to such agencies.
Shogan said he understands why those laid off would question the council’s decision to increase its own budget at the same time it is slashing programs.
“Do I think that’s a valid question? Hell, yes,” said Shogan, who noted he voted against funding council assistants’ benefits.
The City Council budget will be about $1.1 million next year. Its budget this year was $1 million, though it will spend about $800,000, said Budget Director Tim Dunivant.
Benham, who has requested to stay on at the city until Jan. 2, has led the department since its inception. She said she was surprised and disappointed that youth weren’t a bigger priority for the city’s elected officials.
“When funding is tight it should be even more critical for young people to have a say in how the city and the county serve them,” Benham said in an interview in her office as she was cleaning it out. “People think that volunteers can be on autopilot and everything will be as it was.”
City officials expect to request bids from nonprofit organizations to take over the functions of the department. Benham said besides the YMCA and CampFire USA, the Chase Youth Foundation has expressed interest.
In a meeting in 1985 – not long before the City Council unanimously approved the creation of the Youth Department and the Youth Commission that now bears his name – Chase called out other politicians who questioned if the city could afford it.
“If there was ever a priority, this is one,” Chase said, according to a Spokesman-Review article about the council meeting in October 1985. “If this (youth budget) gets reduced, I’m going to keep an eagle eye on everything else we spend. I’m going to be hard to get along with.”