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Council rejects increase in property taxes

Spokane’s property taxes next year will be frozen.

The Spokane City Council’s decision on Monday to forgo its usual tax increase is noteworthy not only because the city almost always takes the 1 percent rise allowed by state law, but because officials are planning to eliminate 100 jobs from city government at the same time.

Mayor David Condon has proposed a flat budget for 2013 and it includes no increase in property taxes. Since the state law capping local governments’ property tax increases at 1 percent was approved by voters in 2001, the city opted against taking the maximum amount only once.

“My Cabinet members and I continue to believe the 1 percent increase will have no appreciable positive impact on services to our citizens at this time,” Condon wrote in a letter to the City Council.

Three council members voted against the freeze and conversation at Monday’s meeting turned into a debate about firefighter and police officer compensation. Last week, some Republican-leaning City Council members indicated a willingness to accept the tax if public safety unions agreed to freeze wages and benefits.

The Spokane Firefighters Union settled its contract with the city last month in a deal that added $1.3 million to the city budget, forcing a dozen firefighter job cuts. The Spokane Police Guild remains in mediation with administrators over its contract, which expired at the end of last year, and it’s unclear if a deal will be made anytime soon.

City Council President Ben Stuckart said a majority on the council is willing to sacrifice important public safety jobs because of anger over contracts. He said an increase could have saved four or five police officers or firefighters.

“Because of this frustration over here we’re not going to provide needed services to the citizens. It takes ideology over what we should be doing,” Stuckart said. “For $4.50 per year, we can keep fire at all the fire stations. That’s the question at hand.”

Last week Fire Chief Bobby Williams briefed the City Council on his plans for dealing with more job cuts. He is proposing to reduce the on-duty firefighting staff at Fire Station No. 9, 1722 S. Bernard St., from three to two. A two-person crew is not allowed to enter a burning building until more crews arrive.

Debate became testy as the usual split formed along party alliance.

“I want to make sure our uniformed public safety workers understand that not everybody on this council thinks that your wages are a waste of money,” said Councilman Jon Snyder. “In times like this, it’s not just a lack of resources, it’s a lack of priorities. For me Fire Station 9 is a priority.”

But Councilman Mike Allen said the city must look critically at wages when the average firefighter earns well over $100,000 – considering wages and benefits – and the average citizen makes considerably less.

“All we’re looking for in this particular time, in this economic environment is equity for our citizens as well,” Allen said. “There are times when the pause button must be hit and the citizens represented.”

Carolyn Longanecker, who was severely burned in a fire in Cheney in 1974, told the council that they should accept the extra taxes to keep a larger crew at Station No. 9. Longanecker, who formerly worked for the fire department on public education, lives in Station 9’s service area.

“Closing down Station 9 is a bad idea. Bad, bad,” she said. “The response time is going to be much longer.”