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Vestal: Mayor’s proposed cuts come at price of safety

Mayor David Condon’s proposed city budget accomplishes his main objective: keeping his campaign promise not to raise taxes.

It does not, however, do what he says it does: preserve the city’s “most critical services.” His proposal would lock in the smallest police force the city has had since the mid-1990s. Attrition and the long time it takes to train and replace officers will likely mean even fewer cops on patrol in 2013. Meanwhile, the budget “re-deploys” 14 people to help developers speed through the permitting process, and another five people for a new customer service initiative – kind of a City Hall concierge for citizens.

Nineteen police officer positions would vanish under this budget. Those jobs are now open, and the mayor’s budget makes that hiring freeze permanent. Same with 10 fire department positions. The city’s one arts employee will be gone – because what have the arts ever done for business? – along with the one person who checks to make sure businesses aren’t putting their fingers on the scale.

But hey – no new taxes! And better service for developers!

The city faces a $10 million shortfall. Some pain was coming, one way or the other. But this budget uses one tool only – the ax – and refuses to consider ways of preserving some services that benefit the community. With any luck, between now and the adoption of a final budget, we’ll see a vigorous debate about costs, benefits and alternatives.

Even modest revenue sources were rejected in this “no-growth” budget. The mayor is choosing to give up about $400,000 in property tax revenue – not enough to fix the problem, certainly, but enough to hire a few more developers’ helpers. That’s the amount of annual property tax increase the city could take, under state law, and it would amount to a few bucks a year for most homeowners. I, for one, wouldn’t mind the chance to weigh that cost against the benefit of another cop or two. Some of us – the crazy ones, mostly – might even be willing to go further.

Plenty of people wouldn’t, and I understand that. Condon does, too – his top bullet point on the news release announcing the elimination of 100 city jobs was just that: No new taxes! For the win!

Condon is trying to reshape the city’s budget process, and his 630-page “2013 Initial Programmatic Budget Proposal” is a detailed, agency-by-agency breakdown. He deserves credit for putting it out there, and for making it possible to examine his decisions and priorities closely.

They come from the all-cuts austerity philosophy that afflicts our politics with such magical thinking: tax cuts plus service cuts equal prosperity. Condon’s former boss, Cathy McMorris Rodgers, carries this banner in Washington, D.C., where she and other House Republicans are staging a constant, obstructionist pantomime.

Here’s how the Condon budget preserves the city’s most critical services:

• Eliminates 100 positions. Sixty-five of these are open positions that will be closed; 35 are real people.

• Cuts the size of the police department to 276 commissioned officers. In 2004, we had 308 commissioned officers. In 1999, we had 290 commissioned officers – and about 15,000 fewer residents than we do today. Calls for service are increasing and so are response times. The last time our force was at this size – at least in terms of the budget – was 1995.

• Cuts 10 firefighter positions.

• Cuts 20 positions from the street department, eight positions from the engineering department, six from parks, seven from financial services, nine from Community and Neighborhood Services.

The budget is not totally austere, however. There are resources for the main priorities, little flowering gardens for the most critical services:

• The standalone permitting center, meant to simplify and ease the burden of regulation on developers and business owners, will go from 6 to 20 employees. They’re being moved from other positions.

• The My Spokane initiative, a new, five-employee effort to show excellent customer service to citizens.

• And the mayor’s salary will return to its full $169,000 from $100,000. This is not a lot of money, in the context of the city budget, and he probably deserves it, but it does fly in the face of the whole “no-growth” thing.

A large part of the magical thinking involved with constant cuts in service is that there is no real cost. That government is so bloated that it just doesn’t matter if the police department has 276 officers or 308. They’ll work it out, strategize, prioritize, consult a color-coded chart, and everything will be OK.

This is not a view shared by our last police chief, who commissioned a report last year comparing Spokane’s rising population with its shrinking police force that concluded: “The City of Spokane is facing a crisis regarding citizen and community safety.”

Interestingly, the mayor’s budget – deep in the details, and well past the press release – arrives at a similar conclusion:

“These staffing levels remain below the recommended level; certain services are not being provided to citizens that should be considered essential for a municipality of over 200,000,” the budget section on police notes. “Though impacts to customer service in terms of response time and activity designed to respond to emergent trends can be mitigated through proper deployment of existing resources, a department can only be so lean and remain effective.”

Shawn Vestal can be reached at (509) 459-5431 or by email at Follow him on Twitter at @vestal13.