Spokane Mayor Mary Verner ordered the hiring of at least six new police officers to fill vacant positions within the department and called for adding more officers next year.
The move comes after Verner, facing a contested bid for re-election this year, sent two plans to City Council members last week that would balance next year’s municipal budget without raising taxes and provide enough money to reverse recent cutbacks to the police force.
“Even in the midst of a Great Recession, the city continues to strive to make Spokane the safest city of our size in the nation,” Verner said. “We are simply having to think creatively about other ways to reach that goal.”
Verner’s announcement was accompanied by a new report on police staffing from Chief Anne Kirkpatrick’s office that calls the current size of the police force, 290 commissioned officers, inadequate to handle demand for police services as Spokane annexes more neighborhoods.
Kirkpatrick said she understands that all city departments are in “dire straits” because of revenue shortfalls, “but public safety should be the priority.”
The report said the number of commissioned officers this year is at 1999 levels, forcing the department to curtail property crime investigations and increasing the risk of exposing officers to stressful situations.
It cites “several incidents of lethal use of force” by local law enforcement.
Between 1999 and 2010, according to the report, there was a 14 percent increase in citizen calls for police as the city grew by 6 percent.
“We are below what we need to maintain basic services with the current staff that we have, particularly in 2011 if those cuts were to go through.”
Even with the ability to hire this year, the report said, the department would not be able to restore the Property Crimes Unit until 2013 at the earliest.
This year the police force faced cuts of 18 positions, but officers agreed to concessions that temporarily spared 13 of the jobs. Five positions were budgeted but left unfilled to save money.
Kirkpatrick was authorized to fill six positions immediately with trained officers, with plans to preserve all 18 positions by the end of the year.
Her report called for the addition of 24 officers to bring the force to what she considers minimum staffing levels, as well as 10 noncommissioned support positions and four dedicated officers for the West Plains neighborhoods being annexed into the city.
“We need to come up with $1.4 million in revenue without raising taxes,” Verner said. “If we do that, we can keep all 18 positions.”
She proposed doing that by diverting $400,000 in Photo Red traffic fines to the general fund, raising $400,000 through changes in parking enforcement and as much as $900,000 by increasing the hotel-motel tax, according to a city spokeswoman.
All three would require City Council approval.
“No one is eager to ask the voters for more taxes,” the mayor said. “But if you aren’t running red lights and you are complying with the parking code then you would be able to retain these essential services without feeling any pain.”
The city has the option of raising the hotel tax as much as 1.3 percent, but it would require approval by both the council and the autonomous Public Facilities District.
Verner acknowledged that such an increase could have a negative impact on tourism, “but if PFD and Hotel Motel Association would agree, it would provide us with revenue we could use to retain some of these police officers we could use for public safety.”