Editorial: Innovative budget plan makes crime top priority
On the Fourth Floor of City Hall, employees in the Finance Department are clustered in close proximity, allowing them to brainstorm problems and help each other out. It wasn’t that long ago they were ensconced in different offices unaware of what others were working on.
The transformation is just one example of how city administration has moved to an integrated approach that provides a more flexible and efficient workforce. Moreover, it’s helped secure some budget savings that will allow the city to hire 25 more police officers, and it makes a proposed 2 percent increase in overall property tax collections more acceptable.
Last year, Mayor David Condon turned down the annual 1 percent property tax increase cities can take without going to the voters, saying he wanted to first squeeze more out of the resources already at City Hall, and identify a definitive use for the new money, which amounts to about $375,000 annually. His just released budget shows that the tax increase – in essence, the 1 percent “banked” from last year added to this year’s 1 percent – would mostly be spent on cars for the expanded police force.
The public’s top priority is stemming the rising property crime rate; this new money addresses that concern. If the tax increase is adopted, the onus will be on the Police Department to show it is money well-spent.
Overall, the mayor’s 2014 budget is the most detailed and accessible we’ve seen. We encourage people to look it over at myspokanebudget.org, because there’s no better way to learn about the city’s priorities and responsibilities.
The document illustrates how the city was able to save money to hire new officers. Returning to the concept of cross-departmental cooperation, the city achieved $2.5 million in general fund savings by charging the water department for future road work, such as the swales and storm gardens along Lincoln Street, that has helped the utility keep stormwater pollutants out of the Spokane River. The Police Department itself came up with $800,000 in administrative savings, and another $500,000 in efficiencies was found by integrating finance and information technology. Restructuring debt and stretching out payments to a fire pension system that’s in good shape freed up still more money.
As with any tax increase, there will be criticism, but keep in mind that the 2013 budget trimmed nearly 100 positions at City Hall, and this one cuts 13 more. The property crime problem must be met immediately and forcefully, because allowing it to linger could damage the city’s reputation and, in turn, its economy.
However, there remains the issue of public safety employee compensation, which outpaces taxpayer ability to pay. The new police positions offer the opportunity to install a two-tier salary system in which new hires are brought in at wages that reflect local economic reality. This should be done with firefighters, too. Such a change would help balance future budgets with minimal tax increases.
As long as that conversation proceeds, we think the mayor has made a strong case for the 2014 budget.