Spokane Mayor David Condon’s plan to approve a budget without increasing property taxes is on hold as the City Council struggles with further cuts to police and fire services.
The three members of the Spokane City Council’s Democratic-leaning minority are pushing to take the usual 1 percent increase in property tax collections and devote it to preventing job cuts among police officers or firefighters.
Condon’s proposed 2013 budget is flat compared with 2012 and removes 19 vacant police officer positions. Up for consideration Monday night was his plan to forgo $415,000 in property taxes – of which $360,000 could be used for police and fire services.
City Council President Ben Stuckart said the money could save five positions and would cost the owner of a home with the median property value about $4.50.
“The 1 percent is our one chance as a council to save jobs,” he said. “It’s a pretty good deal.”
Supporters of taking the increase expected the mayor’s property tax freeze plan to be approved Monday night in a 4-3 vote. Instead, two members of the Republican-leaning majority said they were willing to consider a tax increase to save jobs depending on the outcome of contract talks with the Spokane Police Guild.
The council voted unanimously to delay a decision until next week in hopes that an agreement with the guild is ready.
Councilman Mike Fagan said the police force is “cut to the bone” and that he’s willing to consider taking the increase.
“I need to see the unions step up and do what’s right,” he said.
The guild’s contract expired last year. Talks have been complicated by a strong desire among council members and administrators to give the city’s police ombudsman the power to investigate alleged officer misconduct separately from the police department.
Councilman Steve Salvatori said the plan to increase property taxes is “a horrible idea” at a time when property values are falling.
“We’re making this into a slipknot for the citizens of Spokane. Even though their house values are going down we’re going to raise this extra 1 percent just because we can,” Salvatori said. “We’ve been terrible stewards of the tax revenue that we get.”
State law allows cities to increase the amount of property taxes they collect by 1 percent each year, plus an amount to account for new construction.
Stuckart suggested using the money to save four jobs in the Fire Department. As a result of a contract approved last month with the Spokane Firefighters Union that increases the city’s costs by $1.3 million, Chief Bobby Williams is proposing to cut 12 fire jobs to balance the budget.
He has recommended eliminating the three-person fire company that serves Fire Station No. 9, 1722 S. Bernard St., and moving a two-person rescue crew that currently works out of Fire Station No. 1 downtown to the South Hill station.
Cutting a three-person company results in 12 lost jobs because each company has four shifts.
Three-person and four-person companies would remain at the downtown station. A two-person company cannot enter a burning building until more firefighters arrive on scene. The majority of calls – 81 percent – in the Station No. 9 first-response area are for medical help unrelated to fires.
Adding four jobs to the fire department potentially could allow the department to maintain a three-person company at Station No. 9, though it would create logistical challenges by eliminating the two-person rescue company, which currently performs special duties at all fires across the city, Williams said.