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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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City jobs on the line as mayor presents budget

Verner still hopes for union concessions

Spokane Mayor Mary Verner presented her grim 2011 budget to the City Council on Monday still without having achieved union concessions.

That means the loss of 120 city jobs remains possible, if not likely.

The mayor, however, said she hasn’t given up.

“The only way at this point to save the jobs – since there isn’t any more money in revenue – would be for the unions to agree to pay freezes and the assistance with the medical benefits,” Verner said.

Verner asked employees in September to forgo their 2011 pay raises and to cover a higher amount of their medical expenses to prevent job losses. Officials have said unions that agree to her request will not face layoffs in 2011.

If the layoffs move forward, administrators say the public will notice a difference in city services.

“We’re not going to be able to do more with less; we’re going to have to do less with less,” said Spokane police Chief Anne Kirkpatrick.

Of the 120 jobs that would be eliminated, about 70 are filled.

The lost jobs include:

• 28 positions in the fire department, including 13 employed firefighters.

• 45  1/2 positions in the police department, including 38 officer positions, of which 35 are filled.

• 14 positions in the street department, including six that are filled.

• 7  1/2 positions in the building department, including five that are filled.

• One public defender and one assistant city attorney.

Kirkpatrick said she will shift investigation resources to basic policing services.

“The public can expect to feel the service impacts by not having the same level of detective follow-up that they’re accustomed to today,” she said.

If layoffs move ahead in the fire department, the cuts will result in the closure of a fire station, likely No. 9 at 1722 S. Bernard St., or in the reduction of personnel at several stations. Verner said she hasn’t decided which option she would choose, but that if she decides to reduce staffing at all stations, the decision would need approval of the Spokane Firefighters Union.

“Further reduction on apparatus on the street will certainly affect response time,” said Fire Chief Bobby Williams. “If we have to reduce companies, that means our capability to handle multiple calls is reduced.”

Layoffs in the street department would eliminate the city’s utility patching crew. In the summer, those workers fix streets opened to deal with water and sewer problems. In other seasons, they shift to the normal street duties, including street cleaning, pothole filling and snow plowing.

“It impacts everything,” said Utilities Director Dave Mandyke. “It’s a group of people that do a lot of things.”

Mandyke said the layoffs mean that in a snow emergency, the city would have to divert more water and sewer employees to plowing duty. He noted that there’s a delay of about 24 hours before those utility workers can make the transition to plowing because of work rules. There’s also a significant cost to the street department when it uses water or sewer employees, he said.

None of the city’s unions has agreed to the mayor’s request, though officials say none has ruled out making concessions.

“We’re not willing to forgo our pay raise next year,” Spokane Police Guild President Ernie Wuthrich said in a recent interview. Unlike most city employees, police officers did not get a cost-of-living raise this year. Instead, they were given an extra week of vacation in contract negotiations last year. Wuthrich said the union has suggested alternatives to Verner’s request.

“There’s other ways to save money, and it would equal exactly what they’re asking for,” said Wuthrich, who will be demoted based on seniority from detective to corporal if layoffs move ahead as planned.

Acting Human Resources Director Erin Jacobson said the guild has presented other options, but “nothing that they have presented would result in an equal amount of savings.”

Wuthrich and Jacobson declined to provide details, citing ongoing negotiations.

The guild recently leased 12 billboards, some addressing budget issues. One on Division Street, for instance, lists the staffing levels of Spokane, Seattle and Tacoma. Spokane traditionally has had a low ratio of officers per 1,000 residents compared with other cities of similar size, and that ratio will fall next year under Verner’s proposed budget.

Wuthrich said the guild decided to pay for the signs because “We don’t usually get a fair shake in the news.”

“Most of them are basically public information, letting people know that we’re for them no matter what the city decides to do with our staffing,” Wuthrich said.

Longtime Spokane Library Trustee Ned Barnes made light of the billboards last week at public hearing about the possible closure of the East Side Library. Although the mayor and City Council set the total amount spent on libraries, library trustees decide how to spend that money.

“I drive to work and I can see a big billboard, ‘Don’t cut the police,’ and it’s (from) the Police Guild,” Barnes told the audience after explaining cuts the library system has made. “I’m not going to … well, I could say something, but it would be obscene.”

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