November 2, 2011 in City

Candidate claims wobble on truth

Condon on jobs, Verner on taxes leave room for improvement
By The Spokesman-Review
 

The Spokane mayor’s race is heating up with new commercials, mailers and money pouring in.

Here, we examine claims made by Spokane Mayor Mary Verner and her opponent, David Condon, former deputy chief of staff for U.S. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers.

Claim: “Why were they (city employees) out testifying against the Caterpillar when the county wanted to update its zoning regulations so we could allow those 100 jobs come to Spokane?”

Source: Condon during Rotary debate in September.

Accuracy: False

Analysis: Condon has on multiple occasions accused city employees under Verner’s leadership of nearly throwing a bureaucratic wrench into efforts to attract a Caterpillar distribution center to a location near the Spokane International Airport. Sometimes his statements are stated in ways that lean toward true. Others, like this one, are false.

It is true that city of Spokane planners were concerned when Spokane County proposed changing height limits for buildings on light industrial zones, including areas around the Spokane International Airport, and advised the county to delay a decision to allow more public comment and consideration of aviation and transportation impacts. It was publicly known that the county was considering the change to accommodate a business that wanted to move a distribution center to the West Plains. At the time, however, the county had not named the company or pinpointed where it would locate.

City planners said they were worried that the rule affects the Caterpillar site as well as crash zones much closer to airport runways, and they argued that the height limits shouldn’t be considered unless the county strengthened limitations for crash zones.

Fred Zitterkopf, a former assistant civilian engineer at Fairchild Air Force Base who has been active in efforts to protect the base, said the city wasn’t the only one concerned about how the county’s proposed height limits could impact the base or airport.

The state Department of Transportation submitted a letter to the county warning the proposal could allow construction of tall structures that “put pilots, passengers and people adjacent to the airport at risk.”

“WSDOT Aviation has concern that the substantial increase in allowable build heights with the airport’s established traffic pattern will affect the ability of Spokane International Airport to function as an essential public facility, and ultimately diminish its long term viability,” said the letter from Carter Timmerman, a state aviation planner.

Verner said once more was known about plans for the distribution center, the city supported the project and worked to ensure city utilities would be available to the site.

Claim: Mary Verner has “used creativity and innovation to cut costs and preserve essential services without new taxes.”

Source: Verner campaign mailer.

Accuracy: True if we’re talking property or sales taxes. False if we’re talking utility taxes.

Analysis: We’ll let voters decide what constitutes “creativity and innovation.” There indeed have been numerous strategies for reducing the budget under Verner’s “Employee-Led Innovation” program, and most don’t involve new taxes. We’re focused here on the “without new taxes” portion of the statement.

Verner has said this claim is based on her decision not to pursue higher tax rates. It’s true that she has not pursued new property taxes beyond the usual 1 percent annual increase approved by most cities or new sales taxes to help balance the budget.

She also hasn’t raised the utility tax rate. However, early in her administration, she decided to extend the utility tax to “rate stabilization” utility fees that had been set aside untaxed for major construction projects like expansion of the sewer treatment plant. The city’s utility tax on garbage, trash and water amounts to 25 percent of the utility fees collected on city bills.

Taxing rate stabilization fees shifted more than $4 million a year from utility projects to the city’s general fund, which pays for police, fire, parks and other services. She said that her decision was based on an accounting recommendation that those funds should be taxed. But auditors also said it would take a simple vote from City Council to allow them to remain tax-free. Verner advised the council against taking such a vote because doing so would have forced significant cuts to city services, and the council voted unanimously in favor of her decision.

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