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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Tax hike for police tough sell in Spokane

Thomas Clouse Staff writer

Hours after he confronted two men casing his Spokane neighborhood early Thursday, Rick Eckel spotted a thief breaking into his Ford pickup and called 911.

With cell phone in hand, Eckel dashed outside to interrupt the pre-dawn break-in, yelling death threats at the criminal and pleading with the emergency dispatcher to send an officer. Spokane police never arrived; the thief escaped on a bicycle.

“What kind of service is it? I was threatening to kill someone over the phone, and they didn’t send anybody,” the 47-year-old Eckel said. “What more do they need to hear?”

Eckel’s call was among the more than 2,400 requests for police service that have gone unanswered this year because the city had no available officers to send, according to statistics compiled by the Spokane Police Department. Twenty-nine of those involved life-threatening circumstances.

Last year’s budget cuts and the layoffs that followed have left the department so short-staffed that Spokane Police Chief Roger Bragdon himself describes the agency’s response levels as inadequate. Most property crimes, such as burglaries, go uninvestigated, and crime victims must wait months for the department’s records section to provide copies of basic police reports needed for insurance claims.

It leaves Bragdon and other city leaders with a tough sell as Spokane voters decide whether to boost their own taxes when they head to the polls Nov. 8.

If the proposed property tax levy is approved, which would raise an estimated $3.3 million annually for the Spokane police and fire departments, it would simply help stave off additional layoffs next year. The same service level Bragdon and other city leaders already consider inadequate would continue.

“What they’ll get if the levy passes is that it buys us time to find a different way to do business or to allow the tax base to catch up,” Bragdon said. “I don’t want (residents) to think we are blowing smoke. We can’t afford to lose any more people.”

The property tax levy is just one piece of an overall package that also includes higher utility taxes and winning union concessions on employee health-care coverage to cover an estimated $6 million budget shortfall. All three pieces are needed simply to avoid more layoffs.

That means the city is essentially asking taxpayers like Eckel to dig deeper into their pockets to pay for a level of service that by all measures isn’t getting the job done.

“I don’t want to pay more for the service because I have no service at all,” Eckel said. “They should be raising taxes to protect the people.”

If the proposed lift in the levy lid is approved, property taxes would climb 32 cents per $1,000 of assessed valuation. That would be an extra $48 a year for the owner of a $150,000 home.

Cuts felt in police and fire

Although the most noticeable service reductions have been in police protection, cuts also have taken their toll on the Fire Department.

Fire Chief Bobby Williams either gave pink slips or lost through attrition some 48 firefighters in the past year, cutting the department to the smallest it’s been in nearly three decades. Williams said he would need to add 40 firefighters just to get to the recommended minimum staffing levels for a city the size of Spokane.

In 1983, for example, the Spokane Fire Department had 83 firefighters working each day, and they responded to just over 10,000 calls for service. In 2004, the department had 57 employees working each day, and they responded to nearly 24,000 calls, Williams said.

“The number of calls and population continue to go up, but our staffing is the lowest it’s been in 25 to 30 years,” he said.

At the Police Department, Bragdon has either left positions open or furloughed 25 police officers since 2002. That number is expected to climb to 36 by March through expected retirements. He’s also eliminated 14 records employees, a police psychologist, crime prevention specialists and a liaison officer who coordinated crime-fighting efforts with various community groups.

The police chief said he’s “scrubbed” the budget three times looking for ways to cut spending while keeping the greatest number of officers on the street.

“I welcome anybody to come into the Police Department and look at operations. If they can find a better way to run it, I’m all for it,” Bragdon said. “Most likely, a consultant would come in and say, ‘You need more cops and fast.’”

Spokane almost mirrors Tacoma in population and the number of reported crimes. But Tacoma had about 80 more commissioned police officers than Spokane’s 284 in 2004, the last year for which complete comparison statistics were available.

Tacoma, however, has far fewer support staff, such as dispatchers, records clerks and crime analysts, because many of those functions are provided by Pierce County.

Dave Ingle, who handles finances for the Spokane Police Department, said Tacoma has a different economy and demographics and a tax base that allows it to pay more for police than Spokane’s $43 million police budget. Last year, Spokane residents reported a total of 19,224 crimes, giving it one of the highest crime rates among the state’s largest cities. By comparison, Tacoma had a total of 18,703 reported crimes last year.

“You can only cut so far. You have to find a way to grow your revenue,” Ingle said.

Bragdon sees all the development downtown and hopes all that growth will eventually find its way into city coffers. But in the meantime, he sees more warning signs of trouble to come.

City leaders hoping for best

Politically, the city is having a tough time with the ballot measure.

Last year, when Spokane Mayor Jim West spearheaded the successful push for a $117 million plan to fix the city’s streets, voters were provided with a detailed list of which streets would be repaired and improved. This time, no such spending plan exists, and city leaders are having to rely on voters trusting that all other options have been explored.

West, in fact, authorized a poll of 250 residents this summer that he says showed 69 percent would be willing to pay higher property taxes to pay for police, fire and more library services. By keeping the increase to 32 cents per $1,000, the proposal would need only a simple majority, rather than the 60 percent supermajority needed for a higher increase.

But, as Bragdon points out, that poll was taken before gasoline started selling for $3 a gallon, before heating costs started to rise and before other tax measures were added to the ballot.

Even if voters continue a trend of supporting firefighters and police following the terrorist attack on 9-11, the tax increase will do nothing to help the city catch more criminals, make anyone safer or ensure that firefighters respond any faster.

Asked how he would persuade a victim of an uninvestigated crime to pay more taxes for that same level of inaction, West initially hedged by saying the city has been hamstrung by limiting budget increases to 1 percent.

“All we can tell them is we are going to maintain the level of service and do everything we can to improve it,” he said.

The city already has conducted efficiency studies of various city departments that have done nothing but show that employees are efficient at what they are already doing, West said.

“But the question is, is there a better way to do it? We are bringing in a turnaround team to see if there are better ways to deliver the level of service they expect,” he said.

Bragdon and Williams both say they’re receptive to an independent assessment of their departments.

“If it can work for us, we are more than willing to go through that process,” Williams said, referring to an outside consultant. “For us to stand here and say we don’t have room for improvement, that’s crazy.”

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