Spokane voters will decide on a $5.8 million-a-year levy to pay for firefighters and police, a tax that six of the seven members of the City Council support but Spokane’s mayor opposes.
The levy would collect 30 cents for every $1,000 of assessed value, or $60 for a $200,000 home, and would pay for 30 firefighters, 20 police officers and other crime prevention services.
Citing slower growth in sales tax collections, City Council President Ben Stuckart said the city may not be able to continue budgeting for 10 new police officers a year without a new tax. He said the area could be heading for an economic slowdown and there might not be extra money to invest in public safety.
But Mayor David Condon, who opposes the proposal, said if the city needs more officers and firefighters, it should use existing resources to pay for them.
“We shouldn’t be taxing our citizens more if we think we’re going into a recession,” he said.
If the levy passes, 30 of 48 firefighters hired through a two-year Homeland Security grant will be able to keep their jobs. The grant begins to expire in September and city funding will pay for employees hired through the grant for the rest of 2019.
Spokane fire Chief Brian Schaeffer said without that funding, the Spokane Fire Department likely would lose about 16 percent of its workforce. He said if the levy does not pass, he intends to leave the assistant chief position open and use the salary savings to pay for two firefighter positions.
Much of the Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response, or SAFER, grant paid for firefighters on alternative response units, which are SUVs staffed by two emergency responders who handle less urgent medical calls, allowing fire engines to respond to larger emergencies. The grants also paid for a safety officer and additional staffing on “Quint” firetrucks, which are designed to respond to most types of emergencies.
According to a report Schaeffer wrote for city leadership, alternative response units have saved the department money by keeping larger fire vehicles off the road except for major incidents. He also wrote that if ARUs were decreased or discontinued, both response times and repair costs would increase.
Tim Archer, Spokane Firefighters Union president, said the additional firefighters in the department help it resolve emergencies, like fires, faster. Even if the mayor or fire chief decide staffing ARU or Quint firetrucks isn’t the best use of resources, he said, keeping the number of firefighters at the same level will help the department contain fires or other emergencies before they cause even more damage.
“We’d rather have them show up on bicycles than not at all,” he said.
Condon said he intended to wait until summer, when he receives performance data from the different areas the SAFER grant funded and a 2020 revenue forecast, before making a decision on the firefighters’ future employment.
He said if he determines the city needs the firefighters, one way to pay for them without new taxes would be to renegotiate an agreement between the city and Spokane County Fire District 10 on the West Plains. In 2011, the city annexed much of the West Plains, including the Spokane International Airport. The area was served by Fire District 10 and because of an existing agreement between the city, county and district, Spokane pays the district $2 million a year and Spokane firefighters serve the area.
Stuckart said he has had several unfruitful meetings with District 10 and it has no incentive to renegotiate the agreement and give up $2 million in revenue a year.
Condon said the city also could save money by combining emergency communications with the county. Condon and proponents of combining regional emergency communications have argued it would save the city about $4.2 million. The proposal to combine services has faced pushback from unions, dispatchers and the City Council. Last year, the council passed a law that required city dispatchers to only work with city police officers and firefighters, creating uncertainty among other agencies in the county over whether Spokane would be a part of a regionwide communications center.
Stuckart called Condon’s funding plans “pie in the sky,” saying if money was available, he would have proposed using it instead of a levy.
“If I had other great ideas,” he said, “we wouldn’t have put a tax increase on the ballot.”
Stuckart said he has yet to see a business plan from proponents of a centralized emergency communications system that would prove a regional system would save money. Stuckart also pointed to the law City Council passed requiring city firefighters and police officers to only work with city dispatchers, which he said would make implementing the integration plan illegal.
Condon said he did not believe the levy amount would cover the full cost of 20 new officers, retaining the firefighters and implementing any new public safety or criminal justice programs.
In a report City Administrator Theresa Sanders and city CFO Gavin Cooley compiled analyzing Proposition 1, they estimated the full cost of hiring one patrol officer to be more than $129,000, including law enforcement academy, salary and benefits, equipment and half of a patrol car.
Sanders and Cooley estimated the full expense of hiring and training a firefighter would cost almost $101,000, about $86,000 of which would go toward salary and benefits.
David Kovac, the secretary for the Spokane Firefighters Union, said all the firefighters hired through the SAFER grant cost less than Condon’s report estimates and their training already has been covered. He said between 20 and 25 percent of firefighters hired through the grant are entry-level employees, making about $42,000 annually. The other firefighters hired through the grant make less than $65,000 a year, he said.
“We’ve already staffed those positions, and we’ve already trained them,” he said. “We just want to keep them.”
Entry-level firefighters in Spokane also make less than their counterparts in similarly sized cities like Tacoma and Boise, and significantly less than in Bellevue and Vancouver. However, after five years of experience, most firefighters in Washington state’s larger cities make within $15,000 of each other. Spokane firefighters make about $86,000 with five years of experience, and firefighters in Tacoma make about $85,000. Bellevue firefighters make about $93,000, and Vancouver firefighters make about $98,000 with five years of experience. Firefighters in Boise make less than their counterparts in Washington, bringing home about $66,000 a year as a senior firefighter.
Tacoma has the closest population to Spokane’s in Washington, with just 4,000 fewer people counted in the 2017 American Community survey, but had a slightly larger fire department and received 10,000 more calls for service in 2017. In 2017, the Spokane department took about 34,000 calls, about 60 percent of which were medical calls, according to National Fire Incident Reporting system data. In 2016, there were more than 38,000 calls for service and in 2015 there was more than 37,000.
Spokane has gradually increased police staffing for the past several years, bringing the total officer positions in the budget to 338. In 2016, Spokane had more total employees than its closest neighbor in size, Tacoma, but about two dozen fewer commissioned officers.
John Griffin, president of the Spokane Police Guild, said about 40 or 50 people in the police department are near or at retirement age. A supporter of the levy, Griffin said an influx of new employees would mean the department would be prepared for the retirements and the new officers could fill those roles quickly.
Griffin said the number of detectives hasn’t grown in several years. As officers continue to make arrests, he said, more detectives are needed to solve property and violent crimes. He said a new round of hires could give the department some momentum, but more detectives are needed to manage the increasing caseloads.
“You can put more cops on the street but at some point, it funnels through the detectives office,” he said. “If that funnel doesn’t increase to keep up with the growth of the number of patrol officers that are making arrests, something’s got to give.”
Ballots were mailed last week and must be postmarked or returned to an official elections ballot box by Feb. 12. This year, ballots can also be mailed without postage stamps.
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