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Spokane City Council approves budget that adds fire, police services

After years of recession-driven cuts, the Spokane City Council approved on Monday a budget of dreams.

It adds 26 police officers.

It adds four firefighters.

It even gives each council member a full-time assistant.

The final 2014 budget was adopted unanimously for the first time since the 2009 spending plan. And with so little controversy that it was approved before Thanksgiving. In some recent years, the council struggled to finish its work on the budget by Christmas.

“This is probably the best budget I’ve ever been a part of,” Councilman Mike Allen said.

Councilman Jon Snyder noted that he opposed the 2013 budget because of cuts to fire services.

“This has us on the right track,” he said.

The city will spend just under $600 million next year. Of that, $163.5 million will support the general fund, which pays for programs mostly supported by taxes, such as the police, fire, parks and library departments. Utility rates will rise by 2.9 percent and property taxes will increase by 2 percent.

Mayor David Condon’s proposed budget was largely unchanged by the council, which embraced his strategy for hiring officers. He proposed hiring 25 officers through a series of budget maneuvers. The largest source was found by dipping into city reserves to pay off a street bond and using the ongoing savings, about $1.4 million a year, for new police officers.

Condon’s preliminary budget, which he released in August, maintained fire service levels. But when he submitted his final plan to the council in October, he proposed adding four firefighters – enough to restore a fire engine company back to Fire Station No. 9 on the South Hill.

Last year, the city eliminated one of its three-person engine companies – 12 firefighters covering four shifts. A two-person rescue company, with eight firefighters covering all shifts, was moved to Fire Station No. 9 to replace the engine company, but the rescue unit has limited firefighting capability.

Condon’s budget adds four firefighters, enough to restore the engine crew. But the department no longer will have a separate rescue unit.

“It’s a step in the right direction, but we’re still not where we were at in 2012,” Spokane Firefighters Union President Don Waller said.

The biggest disagreement among council members was a proposal from Council President Ben Stuckart to shift money from the City Council’s internal budget to make their council assistants full time.

Council members didn’t have assistants until they voted to create half-time positions in 2007. Since then, they’ve been given full benefits and 30 hours per week.

Councilman Steve Salvatori questioned how in an economic downtown the City Council has continually increased its staff. But Councilman Mike Fagan, the most conservative council member, joined Stuckart, Snyder and Councilwoman Amber Waldref to make their assistants full time.