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Proposal would tighten rules on City Council budget transfers

Ancillary spending by Spokane City Council members soon could be tightened.

The proposed new rules are in response to questions over a series of internal budget transfers during the past two years that enabled council members to divert nearly $100,000 originally allocated for support personnel to pet causes and community groups instead.

“This applies only to the City Council,” said Council President Ben Stuckart, who along with Councilman Steve Salvatori was cleared of ethics charges last month over allegations stemming from a portion of the diverted spending. “These are council rules and I could change them on my own but am bringing this to the full council … to get buy-in.”

At issue is how the City Council has handled the internal budget transfers.

Stuckart and other city leaders insist all existing procedures were properly followed and that nothing about the spending decisions was either improper or unethical. But critics, including two former City Council members, argue that allocating money for specific purposes during budget hearings and then diverting it to other uses later could be perceived by the public as creating unnecessary slush funds.

Stuckart stands by the spending decisions but acknowledges his goal is to create a more transparent process.

Under his proposal, future transfers involving allocated line-item council funds would have to go through formal emergency budget ordinances requiring council approval if the money is being sent outside the council’s administrative offices. Stuckart said Salvatori helped draft the proposal, which is expected to be adopted June 16.

Among those pushing the issue is former Council President Joe Shogan, who argues that it’s troubling that the council can shuffle money around internally and then dole it out without any public notice. He said he’s pleased that the rules are being tightened.

“This whole process hasn’t been good,” he said. “But the ordinance that I saw would take care of these problems.”

Although the council has long used internal transfers to deal with unexpected changes, the last two years involved significantly larger amounts because Salvatori didn’t hire a legislative assistant, which the city provides each council member. Also, an internal council reserve fund had grown to nearly $70,000 – more than double its customary size – because of an earlier dispute over council assistants before Stuckart took office.

Last year, Salvatori divided the $42,000 allocated for his assistant among all seven council members to spend as they saw fit. Stuckart also transferred $2,000 to each council member from the burgeoning reserve fund.

The money went to community groups, local improvement projects and targeted services, ranging from murals and park benches to economic development conferences and a panhandling study, according to city documents. Some council members invited neighborhood groups and others to apply for a portion of the money, while others hand-picked their recipients directly.

This year, however, Salvatori made arrangements to choose all of the beneficiaries of the $50,000 that would have been used to pay for his assistant.

He spent about $15,000 to cover the expected costs of keeping homeless warming centers open longer during winter months, $5,000 on a new youth program operated by the Spokane Police Department and $5,000 to the same economic development group he’d supported a year earlier, the Spokane Angel Alliance. About $20,000 also was earmarked for the University District Development Authority, but that expenditure has been put on hold because Salvatori is moving to Dallas and resigning his council seat in July.

According to draft expenditure documents, here’s how council members spent the 2013 internal budget transfers:

• Mike Allen – $2,000 to Downtown Spokane Partnership and City Joint Awareness Campaign; $1,500 to Comstock Park entrance improvements.

• Mike Fagan – $3,495 to Greater Hillyard Business Association for insurance; $4,900 to Hillyard Community Futures mural project.

• Nancy McLaughlin – $852 to move two monuments at City Hall.

• Steve Salvatori – $5,000 to Spokane Angel Alliance.

• Jon Snyder – $650 to Crosswalk Teen Shelter drinking fountain; $1,500 to Comstock Park entrance improvements; $1,000 to Friends of Coeur d’Alene Park mutt mitts; $950 to Friends of Manito resurfacing of plant area and polyhouse floor; $300 to Human Rights Commission Award Banquet food and services.

• Ben Stuckart – $5,000 to Priority Spokane; $5,000 to Spokane Regional Health District to pay for employees to attend city planning conferences with developers; $7,000 to Impact Capital Hillyard Project; $5,000 to Downtown Spokane Partnership and City Joint Awareness program to help pay for an anti-panhandling study; $4,095 to ONES Spokane Manufacturing Development for Northeast Public Development Authority; $1,550 for unbudgeted Sprague Avenue striping; $1,000 to Comstock Park entrance improvement. Stuckart dipped into the swollen reserve fund to cover many of his discretionary expenditures.

• Amber Waldref – $3,000 to Impact Capital Hillyard Project; $3,200 to Northeast Community Center Association; $2,300 to Hillyard Community Futures mural project.

The redirected spending fell short of the full amounts allocated and transferred. Stuckart said the unspent balances were deposited back into the city’s general fund at the end of the year.