Supermajority issue, library tax, ombudsman plan to all go before voters
Spokane voters will have a lot to consider on their February ballot, including a proposal to require supermajority votes by the City Council to raise taxes and some fees. Other measures headed for a special February election include:
• A property tax increase for the Spokane Public Library to prevent branch closures and increase open hours. City taxes would increase by 7 cents for each $1,000 of property value – $7 for the owner of a $100,000 property.
• Amending the City Charter to give a police ombudsman power to independently investigate police misconduct.
Voters will be asked to amend the City Charter by requiring that all tax increases that the council has the power to raise or create receive support from five of the seven members, instead of just four.
Councilwoman Nancy McLaughlin said she proposed the more-stringent requirement for tax increases because she suspects that the state will strip more state funding from cities and give cities the ability to create their own taxes.
“I just want to make sure that we’re being reasonable,” McLaughlin said.
Council President Ben Stuckart and Councilwoman Amber Waldref, who oppose the concept, voted in favor of placing it on the ballot.
Chris Cargill, Eastern Washington director of the conservative Washington Policy Center, noted that state voters have five times approved supermajority stipulations on the state Legislature to raise taxes. He said the council should turn the issue over to voters.
“There is nothing more democratic than that,” Cargill said.
The most public testimony was about the library tax.
The city’s library budget for 2013 maintains its current services, but library officials warn that they likely will face branch closure in 2014. The last time the Spokane Public Library Board of Trustees seriously considered closing one of the city’s six branches was in 2010, when they proposed shuttering the East Side branch.
Stuckart originally proposed a tax increase of 10 cents per $1,000 of taxable property value. He lowered the proposal to 7 cents in hopes of gaining more support. All the money would have to go for library spending. The proposal, which would expire after four years, would raise about $1 million a year.
Currently, the downtown, Shadle and South Hill branches are open 52 hours a week, and the East Side, Hillyard and Indian Trail branches are open 22 1/2 hours a week. If the tax were approved, Library Director Pat Partovi said, hours at Hillyard, East Side and Indian Trail branches would increase hours to 40. All libraries would remain closed on Sundays.
Michael C. Brown, president of the East Side Reunion Association, said libraries provide a safe place for kids and other community members.
“They provide an affordable activity for families, especially families living in poverty,” he said.
Dave White, a recent Republican candidate for state House in Spokane, said libraries give kids from poor families a chance. He called himself “self-educated,” thanks in part to libraries.
“I come from one of the poorest families you can imagine,” White said. “We can’t all be blessed with good parents, but we could be blessed with a good library.”
Councilman Mike Fagan, who criticized the library at last week’s council meeting for straying from “core services” by providing story time, movies, genealogy services and other programs, was criticized by some who testified. He explained his vote in favor of placing the tax on the ballot by standing with a shirt with bright yellow letters that said “Let the voters decide.”
The proposal on the police ombudsman would create a section on police oversight in the City Charter. It would stipulate that the ombudsman has the authority to investigate police misconduct independently from the police department and create a citizens board to oversee the ombudsman.
Council members say placing ombudsman rules in the City Charter will protect the ombudsman from political whims and give it the independence it needs to be successful. The proposal was sponsored by council members Steve Salvatori and Mike Allen.
The council created an ombudsman law in 2008. Two years later, it added provisions giving the ombudsman independent oversight powers. But the Spokane Police Guild filed a grievance with the state Public Employment Relations Commission. An arbitrator sided with the guild, forcing the council to revoke the new powers last year.
The guild’s contract expired at the end of last year. Negotiations for a new labor contract are ongoing.
Rick Eichstaedt, director of the Center for Justice, said if voters establish an ombudsman with independent oversight in the City Charter, the city could not approve a contract that contradicted the charter without facing a lawsuit.
“If it’s in the charter, it essentially takes it off the negotiation table,” he said.
Ballots for the Feb. 12 election will be mailed around Jan. 25.
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