Can Mary Verner break the curse of the one-term mayors? For a big clue, residents can look to the upcoming primary election.
No Spokane mayor has won re-election in four decades, but Verner is intent on doing so. The mayoral primary – ballots go out this week – promises few surprises. At this point, only Verner and David Condon seem to have the support and campaign funds to win, although they face three long-shot challengers. But, assuming they take the top two spots, who finishes on top and the distance between them will give voters their first clue as to what November may hold.
Condon, the former district director for Republican U.S. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, made light of Spokane’s mayoral curse when he kicked off his campaign.
“I know Dave Rodgers. I’ve had dinner with Dave Rodgers, and our current mayor is no Dave Rodgers,” he said, referring to the city’s last two-term mayor, who was re-elected shortly before Expo ’74.
Verner’s supporters say her communication and management skills have helped her lead by example during harsh economic times and avoid the kind of layoffs or service cuts seen in other cities by successfully negotiating contract concessions from labor unions. She refuses about $70,000 of the $170,000 salary she is entitled to under the City Charter. (Condon has said he won’t decide until after the election if he’d take a similar pay cut.)
But critics say she dodges important issues by handing them over to the City Council, has been too generous to city unions and has only managed to prevent large-scale layoffs and service cuts by increasing business license fees, supporting the council’s decision to create a vehicle tab tax and. most important, taxing previously untaxed city utility fees.
Condon, 37, says he’d be a tougher negotiator with the city’s unions and would work for a pay freeze at City Hall. He says he would reverse some taxes and fees approved in the past few years and cut the budget accordingly while asking voters for a different tax for streets. He promises to focus on job creation and work more closely with businesses, many of which complain about what they call a burdensome permitting process.
“We need to learn to live within our means. The status quo cannot continue,” Condon said at his campaign kickoff breakfast in May. “We can’t continue to manage. We need to start showing some leadership.”
Verner, 54, says Condon is naive about city government. She says union concessions show she has been a tough-but-fair negotiator and that reversing decisions that bring new revenue would cause major, unpopular service cuts. She points to changes this year to streamline the permitting process and to her decision to sell city land to a steel silo manufacturer, her support of Waste Management’s new regional recycling operation, which will open next year, and her participation in other economic development efforts, including bringing a medical school to Spokane.
“I’m implementing the vision that our community has for Spokane,” Verner said. “We’re customer-oriented. We’re much more efficient. We’re still delivering great quality services even after all these budget cuts.”
The three other mayoral hopefuls range from long-shot to fringe candidates.
• Michael Noder, who co-owns a demolition company. He garnered about 3 percent of the vote when he ran for mayor in 2007. He isn’t raising money for his campaign, though he does participate in forums and has an active website. Noder wants to cut the size of the city workforce, currently about 2,100, by 200 to 400 workers, potentially through privatization. Of the candidates who make public appearances, he is the only one opposed to collective bargaining by union workers. He believes the city should sue the state Department of Ecology to avoid costly environmental upgrades to the city’s sewer system, requirements that are driving up utility bills.
• Barbara Lampert, a perennial candidate, who depending on the circumstances has made impressive showings in past races, such as last year when she finished ahead of the Democratic Party’s endorsed candidate for Congress. But she’s never won a general election race in 15 attempts. She wants to hire an additional 100 police officers, which she claims is possible – despite the city’s $7 million shortfall – by cutting administration and city pay. One of her top issues in this campaign is creating a plan to control squirrels, crows and other varmints within city limits.
• Robert Kroboth, who finished last in two previous runs for mayor. He refuses to participate in candidate forums or to be interviewed. He declined to submit answers to a candidate questionnaire submitted by The Spokesman-Review to all candidates last month. On his website, he labels the Spokane Police Department as a “NaziFascist police force” and lists his chief concerns to be fluoridation of water, public-private partnerships and government overspending. “Elected government representatives that pass unnecessary government debt on to their children and grandchildren are child molesters,” his website says.
The Verner record
In her four years, Verner’s chief accomplishment is steering clear of major layoffs and significant service reductions. She also successfully pursued the annexation of nearly 10 square miles of the West Plains, a contentious battle the city has fought to varying degrees for decades. She followed through on her campaign pledges to restore trash pickup from alleys and to hire someone to look after bicycle and pedestrian transportation and someone else to lead urban forestry. She has accelerated street bond projects to take advantage of low construction costs. She hired the city’s first police ombudsman after backing down from her initial stance that the job should only be part time.
With revenue faltering as the nation’s economic downtown continues, and with council approval, she’s drained the rainy-day fund, raised business license fees and taxed previously untaxed utility fees. That decision moves about $4.5 million a year that would have been used for utility upgrades into the general fund to pay for things like police, fire and park services. At a time when the city is significantly boosting sewer rates to pay for $650 million of required upgrades to its sewer system, critics argue that the city can’t afford to shift utility money to pay for other services.
Sewer dilemma and water rates
Last week, administrators briefed the City Council on a proposal to increase sewer rates by 13 percent next year. That’s on top of a 17 percent increase this year and a 15 percent hike the year before. Much of that is to help pay for upgrades, including work that would halt the dumping of raw sewage into the Spokane River when it rains.
Condon said he would propose a budget that would remove the 20 percent utility tax from fees needed to pay for major sewer upgrades.
“We told the public at the time that this is our savings account to pay for long-term capital projects and then we went ahead and taxed that,” he said. “Right now you’re paying 20 percent interest on what was supposed to be a savings account.”
Verner says state law locks the city into only a few major sources of money and utility taxes are one of them. If the former utility tax structure was implemented, it would result in significantly deeper cuts that would hurt public safety and other services, she said.
“His views on the utility taxes indicate that he doesn’t yet fully understand the city’s financial dilemma,” she said. “It indicates a lack of experience at city level government to be able to come in and hit the ground running during very difficult financial times.”
Condon said he’s supportive, in general, of the costly upgrades of the city’s sewer system. But he said the city must press the state to be more flexible with its deadlines and requirements to prevent overburdening city residents.
Verner argues that the city has pushed for more flexibility. Not moving ahead with sewer upgrades that previous leaders agreed to complete by the end of 2017 would set the city up for a costly lawsuit it likely would lose.
Condon also says he would reverse a new water rate system implemented this year that decreased the costs for users of less water and increased the costs for users of more. City officials estimate that over the course of a year, 60 percent of water customers will pay less under the new structure. Officials said the goal was to help homeowners who have fixed incomes and to encourage conservation.
But Condon calls the plan “a misguided attempt to legislate behavior.” He said he favors a rate structure in which each gallon of water costs the same.
Verner’s difficult financial path was made more challenging by an employee contract with the city’s largest union that was negotiated by her administration in 2008. In exchange for concessions on medical benefits, workers won 5 percent annual raises – a trend that started under former Mayor Jim West. The union, however, agreed to give up some of that pay later to avoid layoffs.
Condon said Verner “has been giving away the store” in her negotiations with unions. He said in his “anecdotal” discussions with union leaders, they’re open to having a pay freeze.
“You’ve got to make the contracts reflect the economy,” he said.
Last year, Verner asked unions to give up their cost-of-living increases or face layoffs, and most – though not the largest – eventually agreed to her demand.
“It’s easy to throw away phrases in a campaign season, but it’s much more difficult to govern,” Verner said. “It’s not a unilateral dictate from the mayor’s office, and this concerns me that any one of my four opponents would think that it’s a simple matter of just freezing pay.”
Party, streets and taxes
Verner has won the endorsement of the Democratic Party for the nonpartisan position – a boost for a candidate running in a city that leans Democratic. While Condon has support from much of the Republican establishment, Condon has worked to distance himself from the GOP. His signs clearly label him “nonpartisan.”
He said he won’t make any Republican Party platform pledge to never raise taxes.
Condon criticizes the mayor for backing the City Council’s decision to create a $20-per-vehicle tab tax before having a concrete plan for how the money will be spent. He said if elected he would urge the council to rescind the tax and come up with a comprehensive street maintenance plan that would go before voters, perhaps with a tab tax higher than $20 per vehicle.
“I’m not a person that says we are not allowed to do any new taxes,” Condon said. “You should show leadership as the mayor, put the plan out there with your other elected officials. We did it with the street bond. We did it with the parks.”
After an effort to create a regional tab tax broke down when Spokane Valley officials indicated they wouldn’t support the fee, Council President Joe Shogan led the effort to institute the tax within Spokane city borders. Under state law for tab taxes, the mayor wasn’t part of the approval process, but she publicly backed the council’s decision. A citizens committee will recommend projects for the tax later this year.
“At some point you’re elected to govern, and the City Council knew that we needed more money for streets,” Verner said. “Our citizens are clamoring for better streets.”