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Spokane’s 2018 budget delayed by City Council over concerns in Public Works division

UPDATED: Tue., Nov. 14, 2017, 1:15 p.m.

FILE - Spokane City Hall. A proposal to move clerks currently in charge of billing for garbage service from the Central City Service Center to City Hall has some city council members raising questions about the city’s public works budget for 2018. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)
FILE - Spokane City Hall. A proposal to move clerks currently in charge of billing for garbage service from the Central City Service Center to City Hall has some city council members raising questions about the city’s public works budget for 2018. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)

The fate of six city employees who handle billing for trash services has put Spokane’s spending plan for 2018 on hold.

City Council President Ben Stuckart asked his colleagues Monday to delay a vote on the $975 million budget for next year over lingering questions in the public works division. Chief among those is the reassignment of six clerks back to City Hall and away from the new $15 million Central Service Center that opened in the Chief Garry Neighborhood in 2015.

“I was a bit concerned by some of the answers I got, and I’d like a little more time,” said Stuckart, before the panel voted unanimously to delay a vote on the budget for three weeks.

Mayor David Condon said moving the clerks was not a budget issue, but part of the city’s move to provide better customer service on the first floor of City Hall. Still, he postponed the relocation until the hesitant City Council has a chance to ask more questions of the department.

“That’s part of our integrated strategy for customer service. It’s bringing some questions, and so we will address those separately of the budget. It’s not contingent on the 2018 budget,” Condon said Monday night. The budget includes shifting the six clerks from one public works department to another at the beginning of next year to coincide with the move downtown.

The City Council also expressed concern about a proposed 11 percent increase in overall salary and wages for public works employees proposed in next year’s budget, which they say hasn’t been fully explained by city leaders.

Public Works Director Scott Simmons told the council last week that moving the clerks would prepare the city to upgrade its billing system for all services, including water and sewer, in the coming years, and provide a more customer-friendly experience on the first floor of City Hall, which is being remodeled to accommodate the clerks who move and the existing workers who handle billing for the other city services.

“We’re getting a more consistent look and feel,” Simmons said after his presentation, part of the council’s review of city departments ahead of the formal adoption of a budget. “We’re looking to get less touches for our customers.”

But council members were skeptical, after hearing from the clerks that services such as cart replacement or answering customers’ billing questions could be delayed by moving the clerks away from the drivers they work with due to an outdated software system.

“I think we all just walked out of that meeting feeling a little bit weird,” said City Councilman Mike Fagan, who added he couldn’t support the current budget for the public works division, with proposed operating expenses of $250 million in 2018, without more information on salary costs and personnel decisions.

Stuckart and City Councilwoman Karen Stratton sent a letter to Condon on Friday saying they felt they were “not being provided accurate information” for the reason behind the clerks moving. Simmons told the council during a meeting last week the main issue with the department was the age of its billing platform, which is still a paper-based system.

“We can upgrade technology without moving people,” Stuckart said after Simmons described the technology issue.

“Sure. But I don’t think it’s the most effective for our operations,” Simmons replied.

Stratton, herself a former city employee who has clashed with the administration on hiring decisions in the past, said she was worried employees’ concerns were falling on deaf ears at City Hall.

“For our employees, to feel as though they’re being seen and not heard, that’s unfortunate,” Stratton said.

City Councilwoman Lori Kinnear said it was troubling that employees felt the need to contact the council, and that lawmakers weren’t provided more specifics earlier in the decision about the administration’s plan with the workers. Simmons met with council members this summer, but Kinnear said the staffing details were not discussed.

“When staff comes to us, and aren’t comfortable going to their supervisor, that says there’s some breakdown in the system,” Kinnear said. She added that she agreed with the main points of the budget, including hiring 10 additional police officers, but echoed Fagan and said she needed more information on specifics in the public works division.

The clerks were told in August about the planned move to City Hall, two office members said in interviews this week. It wasn’t made clear in meetings how, or if, their duties would change after the move.

The union representing the bulk of city employees, Local 270, has been in discussions with the administration on how to potentially defray the costs of working downtown, including parking, and other issues related to relocation, said Joe Cavanaugh, president of the union.

“The employees are not supportive of the decision,” Cavanaugh said. “They will work as professionals and do what they’re told to do. That doesn’t mean they appreciate it or like it.”

Kim Rabel, who’s worked in the solid waste billing department as a clerk for 13 years, said her main concern was how the relocation would affect the service to customers. Because trash routes still work on a paper system, it requires close contact between office workers and drivers in the field, she said.

“The cog isn’t going to run like it always has,” she said.

Victoria Lawrence, another clerk who came to solid waste by way of the treasurer’s office, agreed.

“I want to have things done right,” Lawrence said. “We worked really hard to put a system together.”

Marlene Feist, director of strategic development for the public works division, said having all billing employees under the same roof will allow workers to assist each other with problems that span city departments.

“They’ll be dealing with customers, and very few just have garbage service from us,” Feist said.

The city also plans to upgrade its billing platform for solid waste, which should lessen the need for direct contact between clerks and drivers, Simmons and Feist said. That software hasn’t been purchased yet.

Stuckart and Stratton also raised concerns in their letter about rising wages in the division, and the status of a supervisor, the city’s customer service program manager, who the administration says oversees billing clerks handling both trash and utilities. Stuckart said it seemed as though the creation of that position within the solid waste department several years ago was now being used as justification to move the employees.

The personnel budget for the division is proposed to increase by 11 percent next year, to a total of $76.8 million, according to the presentation Simmons made to the council.

Feist said that figure represented rising medical care costs, adjustments to the pension plan contributions by the city to employees and a cost-of-living increase negotiated with the union. But Fagan said the amount was still eyebrow-raising.

“I think a lot of the council had a rough time absorbing the increases in wages and salaries,” Fagan said.

Under state law, the City Council must adopt a budget by Dec. 31.

Editor’s note: This story was updated on Tuesday, Nov. 14, 2017, to correct where Victoria Lawrence worked in City Hall before joining the solid waste department.