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Funding running out on Spokane’s unpaved alleys, dirt roads

Money may be at the root of all problems, but it can be at the root of the odd solution as well.

“The city wants to certainly take care of our citizens and give them everything we can,” said Spokane Street Department Director Gary Kaesemeyer. “It’s just the funding that’s the problem here.”

“Here” is in Spokane’s unpaved alleyways.

It started simply enough. Spokane’s unpaved alleys and dirt roads, riddled with potholes, were tearing up the city’s garbage collection fleet.

“It’s been decades since anything was done to the alleys,” said Bemiss Neighborhood Council Chair Kathryn Alexander. “The city realized that it was paying to repair garbage trucks and to fix people’s property, and it would be cheaper to just fix the alleys.”

This year the city began a three-year street and alley grading project to cover roughly 39 miles of unpaved alleys and several miles of dirt streets used by city garbage collectors.

“But that’s just part of them,” Alexander said. Along with Bemiss council member Greg Kappus, Alexander spearheaded the Safe + Bright Alleys initiative as part of Spokane Matters 2.0 to fix alleys not used by garbage trucks but that residents need to use, she said.

Using leftover asphalt grindings, the city provides trucks manned by city workers to deliver and spread the grindings with help from neighborhood volunteers.

“We’ve done 11 alleys,” Alexander said. “We have had, so far, over 70 residents involved.”

Nine more alleys are planned by Oct. 13, and the response is accelerating. Five new requests came in the past month.

“It’s taken a while for people to believe it’s real,” Alexander said. “As that trust builds, people are more excited.”

There is only one problem; the city hadn’t planned for such a strong response. Or funded it.

“It was meant to be part of the neighborhood cleanup series of programs the city was offering,” Kaesemeyer said. “The project itself expanded quite a bit.”

The alleys are spread on Saturdays, necessitating overtime pay for city workers manning the trucks. “We have overdrawn (the street department’s) overtime budget,” said Alexander. “They are going to need more money in order to continue with us into October.”

Kaesemeyer said there isn’t a specific fund for worker overtime, so cost overruns eat away at the city’s maintenance reserve.

“We’re pretty susceptible to the weather here at the street department,” he said. “If we have some major thing – a requirement for a lot of overtime – then we’re going to have to go back to the council and get additional funds.”

Alexander and Kappus met with city officials, including City Administrator Theresa Sanders, at City Hall on Aug. 11 to discuss expanding the project. They also pitched the project in front of City Council on Aug. 27.

“The city folks took it under advisement,” Alexander said. “They were very enthusiastic about the project and really want to see it go forward. They are going to have to figure out how to make the budget work, but we are not part of that conversation.”

City Director of Strategic Development Marlene Feist in an Aug. 17 email said funding was available for 15 alleys this year and about the same number for 2019.

Alexander said the city could go either way. She heard an oblique mention about expanding the program citywide, but Spokane Matters projects weren’t designed to expand beyond specific, targeted areas.

“In a sense, we’ve achieved what we said we would,” Alexander said. “That’s an argument for shutting it down.”

Kaesemeyer said it’s all related to the budget. “The city is aware that there are a lot of dirt alleys out there … we have a hundred-year-old infrastructure that just needs a lot of attention,” he said.

Said Alexander: “It’s not just money – you can always scare yourself into not doing something.

“But we really do need this program.”


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